A Tale Of Two Visions: Canada’s Polarized Energy Debate

Fort Hills oilsands development. Image: Suncor

What is Canada’s energy future in an age of climate change? This is a fundamental question, but it’s one that Canada has yet to answer definitively. Two different visions are on offer. Unfortunately, they mostly talk past each another.

Why? Because they’re anchored in different starting points.

The first, which can be called ‘Canada’s low carbon transition,’ takes climate science and the Paris GHG emissions reduction targets as its point of departure. IPCC reports that document the rapidly changing global climate and articulate the urgent need to decarbonize energy systems anchor this view. The low carbon vision is grounded in the existential threat posed by climate change: countries must meet the Paris targets to avert temperature increases that models say would be disastrous for the planet.

For Canada, this approach advocates for a rapid low carbon transition away from oil and gas. How? By phasing out oil and gas production (especially the oilsands), ramping up renewable energy (especially wind and solar), rapidly electrifying energy systems (especially adopting electric vehicles), and putting a price on carbon (especially one that applies across the country).

The low carbon vision is primarily domestic- and upstream supply-focused. According to this view, Canada must reduce its emissions and eliminate the oil and gas sector to meet its Paris targets. Globally, the view maintains that the country has a moral responsibility to demonstrate leadership on the international stage. If Canada — a western industrialized democracy whose development contributed to anthropocentric climate change — doesn’t take action, why would other countries?

The second vision can be called ‘Canadian energy in the world.’ It takes energy economics and global energy demand as its starting point. International Energy Agency (IEA) reports documenting oil and gas demand growth over time and into the future anchor the view. So do IEA and other scenarios projecting fossil fuels will continue to account for the majority of global energy demand — even under the Paris targets. The actual and potential benefits of the oil and gas sector to the Canadian economy, economic reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and government revenues also ground the approach.

‘Canadian energy in the world’ is an opportunity-based vision. With global demand for oil and gas remaining strong — even under ambitious climate policy — there are significant export opportunities for the country’s vast energy resources. In this view, shutting down Canadian oil and gas production will do nothing to reduce global demand, as other producers — the U.S., OPEC, Norway, Australia, Russia — will gladly step in to fill the breach.  

The vision is global-, technology- and emissions performance-focused: if Canadian oil and gas can be produced with lower GHG emissions than the global average — an emerging reality given recent years’ innovations — then why shouldn’t it be sold in international markets? And if Canadian energy exports can reduce global emissions by displacing higher emitting energy sources elsewhere, why shut them in?

But in the absence of emissions credits to recognize Canadian exports’ contributions to global emissions reductions, this approach will always collide with the low carbon vision’s focus on domestic targets.

And therein lies the rub.

As an energy producer and major reserve holder — Canada possesses the largest oil reserves of any western industrialized democracy on the planet — charting the country’s energy future in an age of climate change is especially fraught.  

No government has yet found an effective path to pursue meaningful action —much less results — on climate change while capitalizing on the country’s vast energy resources. Other western producers like Norway have managed to align energy and climate policies to pursue oil exports while taking action domestically to reduce emissions.

Meanwhile, Canada seems forever stuck in a polarized debate with two visions talking — often shouting — past one another.

How to get out of this mess?

The first step in solving a problem is recognizing you have one. Decision-makers in energy and climate circles aren’t always aware they disagree because their views are grounded in different starting points. Instead, they tend to paint the other in ways that amplify polarization. Those starting from climate science and the Paris targets often treat those with other views as morally deficient (‘Don’t you care about the planet?’). Those starting from economics and global energy demand often think those with other views are intellectually deficient (‘Don’t you get it?’).

Telling someone they’re immoral or dim-witted may be satisfying, but it rarely wins friends or influences people.

A second step deals with language and information. People talk past one another when they don’t share a common language or trusted information base. Fostering a productive assessment of both views requires a sharp focus on emissions across the entire Canadian economy, well beyond just upstream oil and gas. It also requires credible trusted information and performance metrics, whether it be on emissions improvements in the oilsands, the potential for global emissions reductions from Canadian LNG exports, or the economic, social and technical realities of electrification.

Third, the debate needs to move beyond insiders. Discussions about Canada’s energy future have largely taken place between elites — energy producers, ENGOs, senior public servants. Over time, opposing camps have developed, each with their own set of talking points, identities and lines in the sand.

So-called ‘ordinary’ Canadians don’t always see things in such stark terms — they tend to be more pragmatic, searching for compromise and balance, not one extreme or another. What’s more, they have other things on their mind besides climate, energy or fiscal policy —affordable energy, jobs, quality of life, and the like.

These daily concerns often get lost in elite polarized debates. The time is ripe for Canadians to learn more about the issues, develop their opinions and express their views. Energy and climate are high on the national agenda, with provinces fighting the federal government and each other — think court challenges over Ottawa’s carbon tax and federal jurisdiction over pipelines, or constitutional brinksmanship over Ottawa’s impact assessment and oil tanker moratorium bills. And federal political parties are fast lining up their energy and climate platforms heading into this fall’s federal election.

This is sure to expand the debate beyond insiders, get more information into the public domain and make it clear that Canada’s energy future is stuck in a tale of two polarized visions.

Let’s hope that political leaders and those in the worlds of energy and climate take this opportunity to help Canada move beyond the impasse. This means clearly articulating the advantages and limitations of both visions, ensuring Canadians have credible information with which to assess them, and, most importantly, identifying ways to align climate and energy objectives. If not, Canada’s energy future in an age of climate change will forever be a tale of two visions.