Ivan Semeniuk and Shawn Mccarthy

The Globe and Mail

March 18th 2015

Canada could shift entirely to renewable sources of electricity by 2035 and eliminate 80 per cent of its greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century, says a group of Canadian academics that is aiming to spur government action on climate change.

To get there, they recommend a national carbon-pricing plan, and greater effort to move electricity produced from low-carbon sources such as hydro dams across provincial borders.

In a 56-page policy document scheduled for release on Wednesday, more than 70 scientists, engineers and economists say Canada is in a more favourable position than most countries for a switch to renewable power, including large-scale hydroelectric. The most significant barrier is not technical or economic, but a lack of political will, they said.

The report says 77 per cent of Canada’s electricity is already produced without burning fossil fuels, and it has many sources of renewable energy.

“This is within reach. We could be the world leader … that’s a very important message for Canadians to understand,” said Catherine Potvin, an ecologist and Canada Research Chair in climate change mitigation at McGill University, who led the writing of the document.

The plan includes improvements to the east-west electrical grid so that energy that is produced where hydroelectric sources are abundant, such as Quebec, Labrador, British Columbia and northern Manitoba, to supply the rest of the country more efficiently.

Topping the list of policy recommendations is a move that would be anathema to Prime Minister Stephen Harper: a national program that would put a price on emitting carbon, either through a tax or a cap-and-trade system.

The Harper government is consulting the provinces and territories to establish greenhouse gas (GHG) emission-reduction targets for the period after 2020 before an international meeting in Paris in December to reach a new climate agreement. Four years ago, Mr. Harper committed Canada to reducing GHGs by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. Environment Canada says that target will be missed by a wide margin without aggressive new measures.

The Conservatives scoff at calls for national carbon pricing, and are expected to ratchet up their attacks before the October election. The New Democrats support a national cap-and-trade approach, while the Liberals want carbon pricing with national standards that would be mainly administered by provinces.

In the report to be released on Wednesday, the academics call for an end to subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and better regional and municipal planning so that investments in energy and transportation infrastructure are consistent with the goal of curbing emissions.

“I think it reinforces the point that, broadly, we know what needs to be done,” said Mark Winfield, a professor of political science at York University who specializes in environmental policy and was an outside reviewer of the document. “We really need to move into implementation.”

The authors acknowledge Canada has been hindered by a political structure that divides responsibility for policies related to climate and energy between the federal government and the provinces. This has led to a “patchwork of policies” at the provincial level exacerbated by an absence of federal leadership on the issue, they say.

Nevertheless, Dr. Potvin said, the key message of the document is that it is neither too late for Canada to implement a robust climate strategy nor impossible to do so despite the impact of the fossil fuel industry on the national economy.

McGill economist Christopher Ragan said implementing a carbon pricing scheme, as the plan advocates, would produce revenue that could be used to reduce corporate and personal taxes.

“You could end up stimulating growth, not retarding it,” said Dr. Ragan, who chairs a separate effort, known as the EcoFiscal Commission, that also advocates putting a price on pollution.


Complete shift to renewable energy within Canada’s reach, academics say