Climate summit marks an attitude shift in Alberta

Blog - Sept. 15, 2015 - By Binnu Jeyakumar

“Alberta needs globally credible climate goals,” said Environment Minister Shannon Phillips. “Our credibility is crucial to our economic future.” Photo: David Dodge, Green Energy Futures

“The days of denial are over,” said Environment Minister Shannon Phillips, kicking off the 2015 Alberta Climate Summit held last week in Edmonton. She was sending a message that Alberta’s attitude and commitments around climate change are changing.

The summit focused on exploring viable options for progress on climate change, with the participation of stakeholders from across the spectrum. More than 300 people filled the room, representing the oil and gas industry, the electricity sector, First Nations, unions, environmental groups, municipalities and the provincial government. The excitement was palpable as participants discussed both the reasons to take action and the opportunities now available.

The summit explored policy solutions in several areas, including carbon pricing, renewable electricity and energy efficiency. If you want more context on climate policy in Alberta, our backgrounder from August is worth a look.

Carbon pricing

The morning included a discussion of British Columbia’s $30-per-tonne carbon tax, and the need for better communications about the success of carbon pricing. The panel emphasized the need for a better-informed conversation about what emissions sources could be covered and exempted, the effective price level, and the different ways to use the revenue that is generated.

On the topic of effective pricing, Nicholas Rivers of the University of Ottawa pointed to various studies that link price and impact, saying “We are looking at a $100-ish price on carbon by 2050.”

Of course, carbon emissions are not just carbon dioxide. Drew Nelson, of the Environmental Defense Fund, reminded attendees of the climate impact of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. The United States has introduced cost-effective regulations that reduce methane leaks in the oil and gas sector, and enacting similar regulations in Alberta could result in significant reductions in emissions which total to well over 10 million tonnes of carbon emissions.

A spirited discussion between Dawn Farrell of TransAlta and Bruce Nilles of the Sierra Club was one of the day’s most-discussed highlights.

Coal phase-out and renewables

“What is our electricity system designed for?” was the question posed by Robert Hornung, president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association. He argued that to make sustainable reductions to carbon emissions, the entire electricity system — rather than just a few components — has to be reviewed. Alberta needs to evaluate the best ways to incentivize capital investment in renewables, learning from the experiences of other jurisdictions such as Ontario. Some options to consider include centralized procurement of electricity, or making retailers responsible for achieving a certain proportion of renewables in the generation mix.

There is also a need to manage the climate impacts, as well as the local environmental and health impacts, of Alberta’s existing coal-fired plants. The closure of TransAlta’s coal plant in Centralia, Washington, was discussed as a case study for how Alberta could negotiate an accelerated phase-out of coal.

Energy efficiency

When talking about cutting emissions, there’s a compelling case for energy efficiency. It’s the cheapest way to make more energy available, it creates jobs, it reduces operating expenses and it cuts down fossil fuel use. As Alberta adopts a new building code, the province should look to B.C. and Ontario — two provinces that are making huge strides in promoting building efficiency and sustainable urban development — for ideas on how to save energy.

There was no shortage of energy in the summit room, with people staying long after the end of the event to continue their discussions. That enthusiasm was perhaps driven by a sense of urgency, as the economic, health and environmental risks associated with the status quo become more and more evident. But it also speaks to a distinct sense of excitement in the province about the tangible actions that Alberta can and should take in the near future.

Presentations from the 2015 Alberta Climate Summit are available online here. There are also a number of ways to get involved:

Binnu Jeyakumar

Binnu is the director of the Pembina Institute's clean energy program. She is based in Calgary.


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