Renewable Energy, not oil and gas, deserves government support

By: Senator Rosa Galvez

Canadians want renewable energy. A public opinion poll conducted for the David Suzuki Foundation found that 86% of Canadians are concerned about climate change; renewable energy is one of our energy-hungry country’s best hopes for environmental preservation.

It is clear that any government that believes environmental well-being is a priority ought to invest in renewable energy infrastructure and technology like solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biofuels and biomass.

I used to think that government ought to stay away from interventions of this nature. I believed that government subsidies devoted to renewable energy industries or the electrification of mass transit were contrary to free-trade economic principles; in any event, energy purveyors using renewable sources have proven to be capable of evolving without much help.

However — after looking more closely at the issue and studying the successes other countries are having — I am convinced that the federal government should support Canada’s transition to renewable energy sources.

For starters, the shift to renewable energy is not taking place quickly enough to keep global warming under 2 C, as Canada and 194 other countries committed to doing under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The pace of our transition is arguably as important as the transition itself — it is up to government to speed this up.

Meanwhile, other countries are well ahead of Canada in developing their own renewable energy industries.

China, for instance, adopted a law targeting pollutants in 2003 that is now beginning to bear fruit. The country has become a world leader in renewable technology; China is promoting offshore wind and ocean power, and it is seeking to increase its renewable energy generating capacity to 890 gigawatts by 2020 (for context, the famous Hoover Dam has a generating capacity of about two gigawatts).

China’s robust support for renewable energy also means that its scientists and innovators are more likely to come up with technological breakthroughs — that it will control.

Financial support for renewable energy does not have to come at great cost to Canadian taxpayers.

The International Institute for Sustainable Development estimated that Canada spent $3.3 billion subsidizing our own oil and gas industry in 2015, even though this industry continues to make handsome profits.

Reallocating this money to renewable energy support would allow the government to jump start development of our own programs. In view of our enormous, longstanding subsidies to the oil and gas sector, together with the pressing need to speed up renewables, subsidies should shift to renewables to boost progress and enhance our contribution to fight climate change.

Globally, the International Monetary Fund reported that around-the-world subsides of oil and gas industries reached about $5.3 trillion in 2015, or 6.5% of global GDP. Why waste money supporting a profitable industry when the innovation, economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy investment holds such promise?

Canada will always need oil and gas, at least for the foreseeable future. It is the key ingredient in many of the products on which we rely and petroleum products will continue to power remote parts of the country that will have less access to renewable energy. But this is no reason cling to past practices.

The government should also be encouraging Canadians to change their energy consumption habits.

We consume the equivalent of 9.1 tonnes of oil per person per year — 29% higher than the global average and nearly triple that of European citizens. We have much to learn from countries like Sweden and Australia, which share Canada’s climate and vast spaces. Their per capita energy use is much lower than ours.

It’s time for Canada to act.

We have a legal obligation to do our part to achieve the Paris Agreement target.

We have an economic obligation to wean ourselves off fossil fuels as countries like China, India and Brazil invest heavily in renewable energy.

And we have a moral obligation to leave the world a better place than we found it.

Senator Rosa Galvez, Ph.D., P.Eng., represents the Bedford division of Quebec. She is one of Canada’s leading experts on pollution control and she chairs the Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources.

This article first appeared in the Senate of Canada and the Hill Times