Trudeau has profound opportunity to galvanize faltering economy

In October, an overwhelming majority of Canadians cast ballots to defeat the Harper Conservatives and bring a new government to Ottawa. Canadians took prime minister Justin Trudeau at his word and his promise of “real change”—especially when it comes to Canada’s role fighting climate change.

There is no issue more critical to this generation and generations to come.

Often disguised by this crisis, however, are profound opportunities. The Liberal government has a sterling opportunity before it to modernize and strengthen our economy, while averting catastrophic climate change.

For those of us who believe in the science of climate change and in the urgent need for substantive action, Harper’s Conservative government is not a hard act to follow. The bar has been set extraordinarily low, but that won’t excuse a lack of action from Trudeau.

With the federal budget coming, many Canadians will be watching to see what kind of treatment it gives to the most pressing environmental and economic challenge of our time. Will Trudeau’s first budget seize this opportunity for what it is, or will Canada continue down the well-worn path of dithering and delay set out by Stephen Harper?

The Conservatives’ legacy is one of inaction and indifference not only in terms of failing to address climate change, but but failing to take advantage of opportunities in clean tech and renewables as well. This can and should end now.

Canada’s current positioning in the global field of clean tech and renewables is a bit of a mixed bag. A recent report from Clean Energy Canada showed Canada’s market share in clean energy declined by almost half, from USD$7.4-billion in 2014 to USD$4-billion in 2015.

Meanwhile, in terms of market share in clean tech, we have fallen from 14th globally to 19th since 2008 as other countries pour resources into innovating clean solutions for their economies. In fact, at the same time as Canada’s share of global investment in clean energy fell in 2015, investment in clean energy rose to an unprecedented USD$367-billion worldwide—compared with USD$253-billion on new power from fossil fuels. All of this while the cost of wind and solar power in the United States fell by 61 per cent and 82 per cent, respectively, since 2009.

Canada is by no means out of the mix but it’s clear that, while economies around the globe have been transitioning away from fossil fuels towards clean energy, Canada has been stuck in neutral or headed the wrong direction entirely.

For years, provincial and municipal governments, think-tanks and the business community have been filling the void left by the federal government. The time for strong federal leadership on this most important question for our environment, our economy, and our collective future is right now.

Trudeau’s commitments to date—$200-million to support clean tech innovation in the resource sector, and $100-million to support clean tech producers—are laudable, but that amounts to pocket change more than Real Change™ in the big picture.

Carbon pricing is an essential component of this discussion, and the path forward in that regard will be politically fraught. But the more holistic and forward-thinking question is around transforming our economy in general. A growing number of voices across the spectrum in Canada are agreeing it is impossible to fight climate change without transitioning to a clean energy economy. But as Clare Demerse of Clean Energy Canada notes, in doing so, “there’s money to be made every step of the way.”

A recent report out of Stanford University charts a course for Canada to become fossil fuel-free by 2030. The Canadian Labour Congress is setting down a plan for 1 million climate jobs to transition Canada into a cleaner economy. Leaders in the clean tech and renewables sector are calling for a national task force on clean energy and a review of the tax code to propel growth and innovation in their sector.

Opportunities for transformative change and growth in the Canadian economy aren’t abstract dots on the horizon. They are standing before us, waiting to be seized right now.

With 2016 budget just around the corner, Trudeau has a profound opportunity to galvanize our faltering economy and take strides towards reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. For the economy, for future generations, and for the planet, he should have the courage and ambition to embrace that opportunity.

The original version of this opinion-editorial appeared in the Hill Times on March 21st, 2016.