Josha MacNab, National Director of Policy and Strategy at the Pembina Institute, recently published a Hill Times op ed on the Biden administration, Canada, and climate action. In this interview, she talks about what’s next as President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris prepare to assume office January 20.
The Energy Mix: You’ve laid out five ways the Biden presidency will have an impact on Canada, and on climate action. What do you see as the biggest issues and opportunities in the first 100 days of the new administration?
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MacNab: The biggest opportunity and the biggest need right now for, America, Canada, and the world is to overcome this pandemic, and to ensure that we’re on a track to greater health and economic stability for everyone. That has to be the first priority. It’s obviously very, very salient in the States at the moment, and it continues to be for Canada, as well. We’re all in this together, and keeping people safe and healthy needs to remain front and centre.
It’s also true that charting a path to economic recovery for both countries is a tremendous opportunity to be thinking about the economy we want to build, and laying the foundation for the low-carbon, prosperous, competitive economy we’re going to need as the global marketplace decarbonizes. Putting that lens on the economic recovery efforts that we’re undertaking right now is crucial for our success.
And resilience is the broader context for the whole conversation. We’ve seen first-hand what happens when we don’t have a lot of resilience, and we don’t want to do that again.
The priorities for those first 100 days will be to re-establish our relationship with an ally who is moving in the same direction as we are, who’s committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement, reinvigorating their Paris commitments, and setting a net-zero emissions target. That puts us right on the same pathway together. Other countries are now moving squarely in the same direction. So we need to explore what that means, find the commonalities, and pull together on the broad brush strokes of those plans.
We can learn a lot from each other, and not just in the first 100 days, about what a credible pathway to net-zero looks like, and how we put the economic well-being of the workers across each country at the centre of our climate and economic recovery plans. We saw a lot of strong language from Biden that I think can be very instructive for Canada, because we’ve also committed to ensure that all communities prosper and everyone benefits from the transition to a low-carbon economy. Biden’s platform commitment that 40% of his clean energy investment will go to marginalized communities is such an important recognition, not only of the disproportionate impact of our traditional energy sector, but also that we want to position everyone to reap the benefits of this new future.
Something else I think we can embrace is that Biden’s climate plan is his economic plan, is his social recovery plan. They’re one and the same. There are some pieces there that we can learn from, and if they want to, there are things they can learn from us.
The Mix: You and others have pointed out that Canada is at risk of being left behind if the European Union, China, several other Asian economies, and now the United States get serious about faster, deeper carbon cuts and we don’t step up. What are the first priorities for action in Canada?
MacNab: We really need to look at how we position our cleantech sectors, the businesses and firms that are producing low-carbon goods and services, at how we support them and ensure they have the opportunity to thrive in the new global economy. We know there are specific, interesting opportunities for Canada to think about.
Take electric vehicles. We’ve seen an aggressive commitment to EVs from the Biden administration. We know that’s going to create additional demand, and that we as a country need to make that same transition. There’s an obvious role for our auto manufacturing sector, but Canada has lost its competitive position with the exception of some electrified heavy-duty vehicles. So how do we double down on the niche that we have, but also position our auto sector to compete?
We can also put Canada at the forefront of the supply chain for electric vehicle batteries. That’s just one example, but those are the kinds of things we need to think about—where the market is going, where demand is going, and what Canada’s competitive advantage will be.
The Mix: How far do those immediate priorities carry us toward a target of net-zero by 2050, and what else will we need to get there?
MacNab: We definitely need the Canadian government to articulate the pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050. We need accountability built into that. We need to have a carbon budget. We need markers along the way by which we can assess progress. And we need to start unpacking where the opportunities are for emission reductions. We know there are huge opportunities in each sector, and we have to make sure every sector contributes its fair share to the overall emission reductions we’re going to need to see in this country.
The Mix: Alberta has invested $8 billion in subsidies and loan guarantees in a Keystone XL pipeline that Biden has promised to cancel, and there’s already some expectation that a solid White House commitment to faster decarbonization will accelerate fossil bankruptcies. The provincial government’s big plan so far for economic diversification is to double down on natural gas extraction and court investors from Saudi Arabia for a new petrochemical plant. What can the province do to insulate itself if the U.S. election result means a faster decline for the fossil economy?
MacNab: The trend toward decarbonization is bigger than the U.S. election. This is a global trend. We’re seeing a lot of pressure being put on the production of oil and gas, and the demand for low- and zero-carbon options for energy is increasing. We’re seeing a trend in divestment, in caution around investment in oil and gas production. We’re seeing big decisions, like Teck Frontier, being made very squarely in the context of climate action. We’re seeing 50 significant global financial institutions that now have restrictions on financing for oil sands.
And now, we see the commitment and the general framing that Biden has been using in his platform and what he’s been signalling. He wants to create opportunities for low-carbon energy sources to thrive, and he has signalled a transition in the economy away from fossil fuels. But that’s actually in line with what we’re already seeing across global economies.
For Canada’s oil and gas sector, it just means more of the same. So it’s incumbent on the oil and gas sector and the Province of Alberta to think about what their future looks like in this decarbonized world, at how they will achieve net-zero, at what a strong, resilient economy looks like for the oil- and gas-producing regions of our country, and for our country writ large.
We know that demand for those products is going to decrease. So it’s important not to conflate the overall energy and climate agenda with one project. What’s most important is being in alignment with the U.S. on how we grow good, clean jobs, how we stimulate investment in the kind of clean energy production we’ll need to remain competitive, ensuring that the people most affected by that transition are supported, and that there’s a plan in place to help them succeed and thrive as demand for carbon-intensive energy decreases.
The Mix: The Pembina Institute’s head office is in Calgary, right in the heart of the pain and dislocation Alberta is already facing after six years of crashing oil prices. What do Canadians elsewhere need to know about the experience in Alberta and a realistic pathway back to prosperity for the province?
MacNab: There are folks working hard and succeeding at polarizing this conversation, and as soon as we polarize, we forget that there are humans on both sides or all sides of the conversation. If we’re going to solve this in a way that sees everybody come out of it and prosper, the heart of our economic and environment plan needs to be a robust transition where the people currently employed in the industry can see a path for themselves. Where they can see good jobs for themselves that put food on their tables and pay their mortgages. They need to be able to see that, and we as a country need to get to work really shaping out what that plan looks like.
And it’s not just the oil and gas sector, not just a question of how we make sure the people who are currently employed remain employed. It’s how do we lift everybody up, how do we make sure people who’ve been traditionally marginalized from that economic gain are positioned to benefit from the prosperity of a low-carbon future. For women and Indigenous people and immigrant communities and people of colour, it’s about how we make sure this new, low-carbon economy is more just and equitable for everyone.
Follow up: @JMacNab, @Pembina