Directing disruption: Shifting climate policy thinking from hindsight to foresight

Posted on Tue, 02/13/2018 - 04:41

Canada needs a fresh approach and new tools for climate policy that will dramatically reduce emissions while maintaining economic prosperity.

The Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research Initiative (CESAR), in collaboration with the Institut de l’énergie Trottier at Polytechnique Montréal, has produced a new report, initiated by the Ivey Foundation, that makes the case for creating a new pan-Canadian organization to help Canada meet its environmental and economic goals. This organization would provide independent, evidence-based expert advice, new analytical tools and policy options to federal, provincial, territorial and municipal policy makers and the general public. The CESAR Scenarios report, Change Ahead: A Case for Independent Expert Analysis and Advice in Support of Climate Policy Making in Canada, which includes several recommendations, is available here.

Cover pages of the report in English and in French (click on the images to download the reports).

In this CESAR blog, I offer some background on the need for a fresh initiative and how the report came about. We at CESAR welcome your thoughts about our report.

Why is a fresh approach needed?

Canada has failed to meet two international climate targets: the Kyoto accord in 1997 and the Copenhagen commitment in 2009. 

The 2015 Paris commitments require annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions that are 1 ½ to three times greater than the previous two unsuccessful targets. These reductions are associated with a promised 30-per-cent decrease in 2005 levels of GHG emissions by 2030, and an approximate 80-per-cent cut by 2050. Canada needs to achieve these targets while continuing to grow its population and economy.

Current policy instruments, such as carbon pricing, fuel standards and clean energy incentives, can achieve only incremental changes in the systems responsible for producing (GHG) emissions. They are not capable of driving the transformative changes in technologies, infrastructure and behaviour needed to meet the nation’s GHG targets and international climate commitments, while still growing the economy.

Our new report points out that we live in an era of disruptive systems change driven by technology, business model and social innovation.  But the primary drivers for these disruptions are rarely focused on climate change mitigation. Rather, they are intended to lower costs, enhance convenience, provide comfort or build community.

This means we need to look for reasons in addition to reducing GHG emissions to transform human systems. We don’t have to look far.

Our report cites personal mobility in Canada as a human system that is poised for disruptive change, but not due primarily to climate change concerns. There are other problems that disruptive innovation is working to address in the mobility sector. For example, vehicle accidents kill or seriously injure over 12,000 Canadians each year and cost society tens of billions of dollars. Air pollution from vehicles shortens the lives of many in our cities. Congestion reduces the productivity of the workforce and demands massive infrastructure investments. Cars are also costly, but we use them only about four per cent of the time; for the other 96 per cent, they are parked on the most expensive land in Canada. We could make better use of our personal mobility dollars, and that precious land, if we had an acceptable alternative.

Many of the world’s largest companies recognize these opportunities and are developing technology, business model and social innovations expected to disrupt global mobility systems within the next decade. These innovations include autonomous vehicles, battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, car sharing and mobility-as-a-service. How these technologies are deployed will determine which problems are addressed, which new problems arise and which problems are made worse.

For example, autonomous vehicle technologies could easily worsen the environmental footprint of personal mobility by enhancing demand, reducing vehicle occupancy loads, encouraging urban sprawl, stimulating fuel use and increasing congestion. However, policies to encourage the convergence of autonomous, shared and electric vehicles could lower the cost of personal mobility, improve vehicle efficiency, replace parking lots and garages with parks and walkable communities, shorten commuting distances and reduce both congestion and GHG emissions. While GHG emission reduction may not be the primary driver for systems change, creative policies can direct disruptive forces to achieve much-needed systems change.

In our report, I and my co-author, Louis Beaumier, executive director of the Institut de l’énergie Trottier at Polytechnique Montréal, argue that by understanding these forces and exploring alternative deployment strategies, policy makers can ‘direct disruption’ to achieve societal objectives, including, but not limited to climate change. The time to do this is when our human systems are in flux; it is much more challenging to alter them once society has settled into a ‘new normal’.

Moving policy thinking from hindsight to foresight

To develop and access new tools, policy thinking must move from hindsight to foresight. It must be informed by independent, evidence-based analysis and modelling capable of exploring a wide range of deployment scenarios from a diverse range of perspectives.

The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, developed by Ottawa and the provinces, sets out twinned objectives of low carbon emissions and economic prosperity. The Framework also commits all levels of government to “engage with external experts to provide informed advice to First Ministers and decision makers; assess the effectiveness of measures, including through the use of modelling; and identify best practices. This will help ensure that actions identified in the Pan-Canadian Framework are open to external, independent review, and are transparent and informed by science and evidence.”

Over the past two years, CESAR, as part of our Pathways Project, has participated in numerous meetings and workshops – organized by Natural Resources Canada, the Ivey Foundation, the Trottier Family Foundation, Canadian Energy Research Institute, Institut de l’énergie Trottier and other organizations – held with researchers, energy stakeholders and government. These events resulted in a consensus that “an initiative was needed to support independent expert analysis and advice regarding policies needed to achieve the objective of the Pan-Canadian Framework.”

Our new report is framed on this consensus. We make several recommendations, including that governments establish a new, pan-Canadian organization to build the analytical and modelling tools, and the highly qualified personnel capable of providing independent, science and evidence-based insights and advice to policy makers and the general public. We’ve given this proposed new organization the working title of Canadian Climate Change and Clean Growth Institute, or C4G Institute.

This organization is urgently needed because current modelling and analytical efforts by public and private entities are uncoordinated, inconsistent, often use incomplete or outdated data, and are not transparent or publicly accessible.

This ‘modelling and data gap’ leaves Canada behind other countries such as the US and UK, and ill-prepared to proactively plan for and respond to the kind of systemic changes that have already disrupted major industries, including photography, music, video/film, books, media, telecommunications, retail and banking.

Canadian society’s human systems will be further disrupted by new and emerging technologies and business models, not only in the personal mobility sector but by innovations such as LED lighting, the ‘Internet of Things,’ e-commerce, solar photovoltaic systems, microgrids and many others.

Without informing and enlisting policy tools for ‘directing disruption’ in this era of systems change, Canada has little hope of meeting its Paris climate commitments, let alone doing this while enhancing economic prosperity, social cohesion and an improved quality of life for future generations.

As always, CESAR welcomes your thoughts about our work.

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