Energy transition needs to engage people

May 20, 2016


In my virtual twitter world, everyone gets climate change and is working on solutions to prevent further global warming.  They are busy figuring out how to manage the impacts we are already experiencing and to be better prepared for what is coming down the pipe. Mind you I follow @climateoutreach, @350, @OntarioClimate, @MAC_Climate among many others.  You get the picture.

In the real world, my sense is that many people in leadership positions, whether in government, business or civil society have not taken the time to deeply understand what the climate science is telling us and the catastrophic impact unabated global warming will have on the planet, people and profits.

Not so the Ontario Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Glen Murray.  Perhaps not surprising given his job.

I have heard Minister Murray speak on several occasions since he has taken on the climate change file for his government.  He doesn’t pull his punches and, if anything, his message has only become stronger and more urgent over time.

If you have been following the climate science, you will not be surprised by the scale or speed of energy system transformation proposed in Ontario’s climate plan.  It is what the science has been calling for over the last two decades or more.  The targets agreed to in Paris last year by world leaders amount to eliminating greenhouse gas pollution by 2050 or soon after.  Eliminating.  That requires a wholesale change in our energy system and it has to start now with big moves.  Ontario’s climate plan is pitching at the right level.

The debate over the magnitude of the change and how the plan proposes to get there will be fiercely debated over the coming weeks and months.  My concern is, if the past is any measure, the plan will be heavily forced from above without reaching out to engage Ontarions in the change process.  The way the Feed-in-Tariff program was implemented is a case in point.  Something that should have made a positive contribution to rural sustainability only served to divide rural communities and polarize the debate on renewable energy.

System change does not come easily. It cannot be done in isolation and must engage multiple actors from many sectors. The systems associated with the transition to a low carbon economy are complex and informed by many formal and informal rules (regulations, standards, laws, relationship roles, values, behavioural norm, belief systems and more).  If people aren’t effectively engaged in the change process, they will emerge as a formidable force to be reckoned with – even if they are highly concerned about climate change.

At a community level, smart developers have learned, if they engage the neighbourhood early in their building plans, they will save time and money in the long run in getting their projects approved by local councils.  But as one developer once told me, too many of his industry peers will “spend a dollar to save a dime”.  That is the biggest risk I see in the next few years.  What might seem like expediency in the moment comes with considerable costs down the road.