Filling the Green Leadership Vacuum

With the feds reluctant to take the lead, other actors are stepping up.

By: /
March 30, 2012
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International trade litigator at the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs

It will come as a shock to few people that climate change and the environment are low on the current federal government’s list of priorities. Instead of focusing on clean energy and reducing our dependence on hydrocarbons, our government has largely sidestepped the issue of climate change and devoted efforts to developing our natural resources. As other economies around the world – think China, Europe, and even the United States – forge ahead in pioneering low-carbon technologies, Canada has officially remained wedded to resource extraction. Over the past decade, for example, investments in energy and mining in Canada have jumped by a whopping $45 billion and now represent almost half of all business investment in Canada. We used to refer to ourselves as “hewers of wood and drawers of water,” but “crushers of ore and pumpers of crude” now seems more appropriate.

In light of this fossil-fuel focus, it is somewhat odd that Canada is still home to the Globe Conference, North America’s largest gathering on business and the environment, which is held once every two years. Globe 2012 – which took place in March in Vancouver – counted more than 10,000 participants. Several countries – including China, Germany, Japan, the U.K., Dubai, France, Spain, Australia, and others – sent major delegations to the conference, all of which lobbied hard for the their clean-technology champions and did their utmost to attract new green investment and economic activity to their shores.

Amidst all of this, how did our federal government stack up? Unfortunately, not very well. The only federal representation at Globe was Environment Minister Peter Kent, who gave a speech that focused on shortening environmental assessments for resource development projects (think Keystone XL and Northern Gateway), touted the federal government’s much-criticized sector-by-sector approach to greenhouse-gas emissions, and mused that Canada’s decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol was made because “a cow is a cow is a cow … and none of them are sacred.” Understandably, this message did not resonate with an audience of professionals intent on leading the charge to a low-carbon economy.

Interestingly, however, the lack of federal leadership at Globe meant that other actors naturally took on the mantle of representing Canada. B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake was omnipresent at the conference, touting British Columbia’s aggressive and increasingly successful efforts to build a cleantech cluster. The Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance – a new partnership of oil-sands producers collaborating to improve environmental performance – was brilliantly represented by its chief executive, Dan Wicklum. Even David Helliwell, the founder of scrappy Canadian cleantech success story Pulse Energy, was publicly praised as a leader and innovator by the CEO of one of America’s largest electrical utilities.

Looking at the conference through the eyes of a Chinese or European visitor, two visions would have emerged: a federal government reluctant to lead on these issues; and both provincial and private-sector actors who are not waiting for Parliament, and are intent on innovating and finding solutions to environmental problems on their own. By ceding the space to other actors at Globe, the federal government signalled that it increasingly does not expect to be engaged on the transition to the green economy. It should not be surprised, therefore, if our foreign partners and competitors increasingly take the hint and increasingly work around it.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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