Chad Park is the chief innovation officer at The Natural Step Canada, a non-profit organization focused on sustainability. He is also the director of the Energy Futures Lab.
As pipeline politics continue to make abundantly clear, there are two competing visions at play about Canada's energy future. Reconciling them is of utmost importance for our country.
The first is the business-as-usual vision: Our economy and many jobs depend on oil and gas. Global demand for energy is going up. We've got decades to come as oil and gas producers and we should maximize the economic benefits. And, by the way, we're far safer and more ethical than most other oil producers.
The second vision is climate-driven. We have to limit global warming to two degrees. This should guide our energy policy and investment priorities. New technology is available and increasingly competitive. Fossil fuels don't fit with this goal and any investments (like pipelines) that lock us into the other vision is setting us on the wrong path.
Can these two visions be reconciled? Can we find common ground between the ideas that oil is dirty and unsustainable, and oil is our economic lifeblood?
We can, and we must. The path to reconciling these competing visions is not negotiation. It's co-creation. And Alberta can lead the way.
Why is the dirty oil narrative such a trigger for many Albertans? We have massive public and private investments in these resources. Their development has been a major source of prosperity for the whole country. Plus, this is personal. We have friends, relatives, children who work or have worked in oil and gas. Many of them have suffered over the past two years. Having the source of their livelihoods labelled as dirty gets our backs up, especially in tough times.
But our response need not be defensive and can be so much more than with-us-or-against-us debates.
We know that we have to find a way to meet the world's growing need for energy without exceeding two degrees of warming. The Paris Agreement commits us to this goal. Billions of dollars are being invested globally in technologies to help the world achieve it. The U.S. withdrawal from Paris is not going to change this.
So, what if we used our resources and know-how to help enable the transition to a carbon-competitive economy? What if our oil and gas industry became development ground for the latest renewable energy, storage and efficiency technologies? What if we focused on the role hydrocarbons can play in a low-carbon future?
If oil as part of a sustainable future sounds counterintuitive, that's only because we've become trapped in a belief that how we do things today is the only way. Hydrogen and carbon atoms will play an important role in a sustainable future. But we'll produce and use them differently.
Innovators are developing technology to turn carbon dioxide into valuable materials. NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE is a global competition to find technologies to turn carbon dioxide into alternative fuels, building materials and other useful products. Of the 27 semi-finalists, nine are Canadian. What about markets for bitumen beyond combustion? If we want our resources to have a long-term role in a low-carbon future, we'll need to be leaders in these emerging innovation fields.
We can't get where we need to by demonizing those advocating for strong climate leadership. Most people are concerned about a strong economy and a healthy future. There is no choice between the two. We need to make use of our strengths in today's energy system to help build the one the future requires of us.
This is happening. While it doesn't make the headlines, people are finding new paths to common ground and breakthroughs. Oil and gas executives are working with clean-tech entrepreneurs, First Nations leaders, environmental advocates and so on. Alberta is a hotbed for this kind of roll-up-the-sleeves, "get it done" collaboration that much of the rest of the world would not believe possible.
Is oil a dirty word?
It doesn't need to be. But we'll need to reimagine its role in our future. And to find the best ideas, we'll have to work with people we are used to disagreeing with.