Input on the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy

This spring I was asked to join the Sustainable Development Advisory Council to provide feedback to the Canada's Minister of Environment and Climate Change on the nation's Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS).  I am humbled and excited about the opportunity to share input on the strategy and play a small part in shaping the way we approach sustainable development as a country.

The Federal Sustainable Development Act adopted in 2008 sets out the requirement "to require the development and implementation of a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy and the development of goals and targets with respect to sustainable development in Canada"The FSDS is the government’s plan and vision for a more sustainable Canada. It outlines how 37 federal government departments and agencies are working to create a sustainable economy and protect the environment for the next three years. It also outlines the Government of Canada’s environmental sustainability contributions to the 2030 Agenda, a set of global sustainable development goals.

This the third iteration of the strategy and the government has gone far and wide to solicit feedback from Canadians about their views on sustainable development.  The strategy is centred around 5 main priority areas:

  • ŠTaking Action on Climate Change
  • Clean Technology, Jobs and Innovation
  • National Parks, Protected Areas and Ecosystems
  • Freshwater and OceansŠ 
  • Human Health, Well-being and Quality of Life

I encourage you to check out the strategy for yourself on the interactive website and submit your own feedback or you can download my submission below.

Canada’s Environmental Renaissance and Legacy

This paper was prepared as a thought piece for the Sustainable Development Technologies Canada (SDTC) Clean Tech Advantage Summit in April 2016

1.     Introduction 

Canada lives an environmental paradox.  As a nation that simultaneously boasts vast natural resources and a deeply embedded appreciation of nature, we have slipped from environmental leader to laggard.  But this is not just an environmental problem; this is an economic problem.  With global competitiveness and trade becoming increasingly tied to environmental performance, we as a nation are at threat of falling behind in a changing world.  The good news is that Canada has every tool at its disposal to thrive in a new global economy. By embracing a Renaissance of sorts and renewing commitment to evidence-based, scientifically grounded policy that sets the conditions necessary for spurring innovation, Canada can ensure a prosperous and sustainable economy. 

2.     Canada’s Environmental Paradox

The Canadian identity is closely linked to the natural environment.  Canada is one the wealthiest nations on Earth in terms of its vast natural endowments.  It is the second largest nation on the planet (CIA, 2015) ranking fourth in total renewable water resources (CIA, 2011) and boasting more coastline than any other country (MoW, 2012).  Canada has 24% of the world’s remaining intact forest area (Chung, 2014) and 25% of the world’s wetlands (NCC, 2016).  In addition, it has plentiful natural resource stocks including energy sources, mineral deposits, fisheries and farmland.    Canadians truly are unique inheritors of ecological bounty and this has permeated our identity as people.  As environmentalist and author David Boyd (2003) puts it, “passion for the natural environment is one of the rare subjects of societal convergence” in Canada. 

From the 1970s to the early 1990s, Canada built a strong reputation as an international environmental leader. The examples are numerous.  It was the first industrialized nation to ratify the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD, 2015) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, 2014).  Canadian Maurice Strong was known for his central role in the Rio Earth Summit and in other international normative processes on environmental issues. Canada demonstrated leadership on issues such as acid rain, ocean governance, and Arctic protection (Boyd, 2003); and took a leading role in negotiating and adopting one of the world’s most successful multilateral environmental agreements, the Montreal Protocol for combatting ozone depletion.

Unfortunately, this leadership has since waned.  While the process of quantifying and comparing environmental performance is far from standardized, there have been numerous studies and rankings that put Canada at the bottom of the pack when compared to its peer countries[1].  In a 2010 study from Simon Fraser University, Canada’s environmental performance ranked 24 out of the 25 wealthiest nations in the OECD (Gunton, 2010). In a 2013 study published by the Center for Global Development, Canada ranked last among 27 industrialized nations on environmental performance (Waldie, 2013).  Even one of the country’s most highly respected think tanks, the Conference Board of Canada (2013), ranks Canada 15 out of 17 industrialized nations on environmental performance. In an analysis of country’s governance structures for enabling sustainable development, the OECD commented that Canada has “a tendency to talk rather than act.” And while a dominant narrative in Canada for decades has been that the country is a world-leader on the environment, there is a growing awareness and awakening to the fact that “Canada’s reputation far exceeds our track record.” (Suzuki, 2003)

Herein lies the Canadian environmental paradox – a nation with an abundance of natural resources and strong cultural ties to the natural world has slipped from an environmental trailblazer to a laggard when compared to its peers. 

3.     New Framing

Understanding Canada’s comparatively low environmental performance requires new framing.  For so long, the arguments have been about whether or not Canada is lagging and not about how Canada is lagging. When one investigates more deeply it becomes apparent that many of Canada’s environmental problems are also economic problems. 

Canada does rank high on certain environmental indicators, for example, fourth for protected areas (IUCN, 2015) and fourth for share of total installed renewable electricity globally (OECD, 2014a).  In addition, it scores high on environmental inventions (fifth) (OECD, 2012) and on clean-tech innovation (sixth) (WWF, 2014). Where Canada falls short is on measures of productivity. 

Productivity measures the efficiency with which an economy transforms inputs into outputs (StatsCan, 2014).  The most common measure for productivity is labour productivity (output in dollars per hour worked) and Canada has lagged behind the United States and other major countries on this measure for over three decades (Hodgson, 2013).  Environmental productivity measures are also problematic for Canada.  According to a recent report by Smart Prosperity (2016), when comparing the country to a group of 14 peer countries[2] that are most similar in terms of income, population density, economic structure and economic growth Canada ranks:

·       14th out of 15 on CO2 productivity (GDP per unit of CO2 emitted)

·       15th out of 15 on energy productivity (GDP per unit of CO2 emitted)

·       9th out of 15 on water withdrawal productivity (GDP per unit of water used)

·       11th out of 15 on material consumption productivity (GDP per unit of material consumed)

To put this more simply, Canada’s economy uses comparatively more natural resources than its peers for generating wealth.  Combine this with our lagging labour productivity and the case for framing these issues differently becomes apparent.  While discourse often pits the environment against the economy, our productivity numbers show that we must consider both to have a prosperous Canadian economy in the future.  The data shows that environmental performance and economic competitiveness often go hand-in-hand.  Nine of the countries ranked in the World Economic Forum’s top fifteen for environmental performance are also in the top fifteen for global competitiveness (Boyd, 2012) with Switzerland ranking number one on both indices. 

This is a tremendous opportunity for Canada.  As a nation, we are not expecting to see large labour market changes or export growth from current industrial sectors (EDC, 2015), which means technological deployment, deepening of workforce skills and knowledge, resource efficiency (Smart Prosperity, 2016), and transformative innovation (StatsCan, 2014) are the areas where potential wealth creation could be realized.

4.     A Canadian Renaissance

Canada is at a unique point in history.   2015 marked a monumental year of change for the country and the global discussion around sustainability.  Domestically, a Liberal government was elected after 10 years of Conservative rule. In addition, the oil and gas producing province of Alberta elected an NDP government ending the 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty. The Canadian political landscape is vastly different than it was at the beginning of 2015. On the international front, the United Nations held three high profile conferences on sustainable development – the Financing the Future Forum in Addis Ababa on sustainable finance, the Sustainable Development Summit in New York to adopt the post-2015 development agenda (the Sustainable Development Goals) and COP 21 in Paris for a globally binding climate agreement. Environmental issues, particularly climate change, are on political agendas all over the world. 

The UN Environment Programme also called for decarbonisation (net zero emissions) by the year 2050 to meet a 2°C warming scenario (UNEP, 2015).  This is a particularly pertinent for Canada’s fossil fuel industries, as they will need to be replaced by low carbon energy systems and products to meet global climate objectives.  And to add yet another layer of complexity to the system, these realizations about the imminent future of the industry come at an especially volatile time as commodity markets are experiencing drastically depressed oil and natural gas prices which have led to economic downturn, particularly in fossil fuel exporting regions. 

There is an opportunity for Canada to take advantage of these unique conditions and undergo a Renaissance of sorts - to return to the status of an environmental leader and a country that “punches above its weight” economically (Flaherty, 2010).  The Renaissance was characterized by a surge of interest in classical learning and values, particularly philosophy, arts and science.  Canada has the opportunity to apply this to the policy context and renew its commitment to evidence-based, scientifically grounded policy that sets the conditions necessary for a new Canadian economy. 

A transition is already underway and investment patterns are changing; the numbers speak for themselves.  2015 was a record year for clean energy investment reaching $329B and surpassing capital expenditure in oil and gas ($321B) for the first time ever (Leibreich, 2016). It is estimated that $90 trillion in global infrastructure investments will be required from 2015 to 2030 particularly in areas like energy technology, water infrastructure, and transportation innovation as populations grow and low-income countries develop (GCEC, 2014).  The question is if Canada will be a buyer or a seller of the technologies that will attract these dollars and meet these growing needs.

Canada has one of the most educated populations on the planet (OECD, 2014b), vast natural resources and an inherent entrepreneurial spirit.  There is every opportunity to create the kind of expertise and technology the world needs.

5.     New Approaches, New Legacy – Conclusion 

What will determine how this future unfolds is how we as Canadians approach it. Will we let this new transition divide us or will we have it unify us; be our common 21st Century project as the national railway once was? Will we see change as a threat and resist it until we are forced to adapt or will we see it as an opportunity, embrace it, and get ahead of the transition?  Will we use the wealth from our current industries to build the industries of the future? Will we focus on the ecosystem Canada creates for environmental and economic innovation or will invest in dying sectors of the past?

Speaking as a young Canadian who is passionate about the future of this country and our planet, I believe there are several things we need to do to create the conditions for the successful transition to a sustainable future.

·       Reframe innovation

In many senses, the term innovation has become synonymous with technology.  It is important that we also consider and encourage innovations in business models, policy, platforms, etc. as they can enable technology deployment and have potential transformative impacts on consumer behaviour and/or culture.  We should also address the various scales of innovation. A complete strategy around innovation investment and ecosystem building will include considerations for both incremental and transformative solutions. While there are low hanging fruit and quick wins, a portfolio approach that considers potentially disruptive innovations should be employed. 

·       Humanize our challenges for new solutions

At the very root of innovation is meeting basic human needs or desires. We often focus too much on what technologies do and don’t think about why they exist in the first place. If we look at our challenges from the human lens first, it can open a space for broader solutions beyond simply incrementally improving current ways of doing things. 

·       Be deliberate about where Canada can win big

As discussed in this paper, Canada has a vast array of resources at its disposal.  While there is no crystal ball for what the future will bring, there is knowledge about the industries and sectors that will be required to meet the needs of global trends like growing populations, mass urbanization, carbon constrained economies, etc.  Canada should take stock of competencies in relation to these trends and deploy our resources towards these areas of growth. 

·       Build ecosystems

No one country can be a leader in everything, but building a strong, resilient economy is about creating reinforcing ecosystems for innovation to thrive.  This is done through implementing policy architecture that matches our values and priorities domestically and in the global marketplace, making well-placed investments, and strategically building capacity in the areas that we believe our competitive advantage lies.  

Change is never easy or comfortable but it is inevitable.  As we progress and evolve, those who thrive are those who are able to embrace the opportunities of transition by becoming indispensible to making it happen.  The natural environment is embedded in who we are as Canadians and for that reason we already have an unfair advantage in a world where sustainable development is central to economic wellbeing.  We can take the bounties of the industries of the past and transform them into the industries of the future.  We can be the trailblazers that show the world how to build that model.  That is the legacy I see for Canada.

 References

Boyd, D. (2003), Unnatural Law: Rethinking Canadian Environmental Law and Policy, Vancouver: UBC Press

Boyd, D. (2012), The Right to a Healthy Environment: Revitalizing Canada’s Constitution, Vancouver: UBC Press

Chung, E. (2014), Canada’s Degradation of Pristine, Intact Forests Leads World, CBC News, September 5, 2014 (based on research by P. Potapov, Associate Professor of Geographical Sciences at the University of Maryland), retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/canada-s-degradation-of-pristine-intact-forests-leads-world-1.2757138  

CIA (2015), “Land Area by Country,” CIA World Factbook, retrieved from: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2147rank.html

CIA (2011), “Total Renewable Water Resources,” CIA World Factbook, retrieved from: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2201.html

Conference Board of Canada (2013), International Ranking Environment, retrieved from:http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/environment.aspx 

Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (2015), “List of Parties”, retrieved from: https://www.cbd.int/information/parties.shtml

Export Development Canada (EDC) (2015), Global Export Forecast, retrieved from: https://www.edc.ca/EN/Knowledge-Centre/Economic-Analysis-and-Research/Documents/GEF-Fall-2015.pdf

Flaherty, J. (2010) Canada: “Punching above our weight”, Policy Options, September 10, 2010, retrieved from: http://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/making-parliament-work/canada-punching-above-our-weight/

Global Commission on the Economy and Climate (GCEC) (2014), New Climate Economy Technical Note: Infrastructure Investment Needs of a Low-Carbon Scenario, November 2014, retrieved from: http://2014.newclimateeconomy.report/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/%20Infrastructure-investment-needs-of-a-low-carbon-scenario.pdf

Gunton, T. & Calbick, K.S. (2010), “The Maple Leaf in the OECD: Canada’s Environmental Performance”, David Suzuki Foundation, retrieved from: http://www.davidsuzuki.org/publications/downloads/2010/OECD_Report_Final.pdf

Hodgson, G. (2013), Canadian productivity: Even worse than previously thought, Globe and Mail, August 28, 2013, retrieved from: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/economy/economy-lab/canadian-productivity-even-worse-than-previously-thought/article13988435/ 

International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) (2015), Protected Planet Database, 2014-15, retrieved from: http://www.protectedplanet.net/  

Leibreich, M. (2016) “In Search of the Miraculous”, Presentation from Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit, April 5, 2016

Maps of the World (MoW) (2012), Top Ten Countries With Longest Coastlines, retrieved from: http://www.mapsofworld.com/world-top-ten/world-top-ten-longest-coastline-countries-map.html   

Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) (2016), Nature Conservancy of Canada Celebrates World Wetlands Day, February 2, 2016, retrieved from: http://www.natureconservancy.ca/en/where-we-work/saskatchewan/news/nature-conservancy-of-canada-3.html

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2012), Statistics: Environment/Patents, retrieved from: http://stats.oecd.org/  

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2014a), Green Growth Indicators 2014, OECD Green Growth Studies, OECD Publishing, Paris, retrieved from: http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/environment/green-growth-indicators-2013_9789264202030-en

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2014b), Education at a Glance 2014, OECD Publishing, Paris, retrieved from: http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/education/education-at-a-glance-2014_eag-2014-en#page18

Smart Prosperity (2016), New Thinking: Canada’s Roadmap to Smart Prosperity, retrieved from: http://www.smartprosperity.ca/sites/default/files/documents/spfullreport2016feb25a-final.pdf

Statistics Canada (2014), The Canadian Productivity Review, retrieved from: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/15-206-x/15-206-x2014038-eng.htm

Suzuki, D. (2003), Quote, retrieved from: Boyd, D. (2003), Unnatural Law: Rethinking Canadian Environmental Law and Policy, Vancouver: UBC Press

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2015), The Emissions Gap Report, retrieved from: http://www.unep.org/publications/ebooks/emissionsgapreport/

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) (2014), “Status of Ratification of the Convention”, retrieved from: http://unfccc.int/essential_background/convention/status_of_ratification/items/2631.php

Waldie, P. (2013) Canada dead last in ranking for environmental protection, Globe and Mail, November 18, 2013, retrieved from:  http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/canada-dead-last-in-oecd-ranking-for-environmental-protection/article15484134/

WWF/CTG (2014), Global Cleantech Innovation Index 2014, retrieved from: http://info.cleantech.com/CleantechIndex2014.html  

[1] A peer country refers to nations with comparable governing and economic systems, they vary per study.

[2] Australia, Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States.  

Why I Changed My Diet for the Planet

Originally published on the Student Energy Blog on April 27, 2016

Anyone who knows me knows I am passionate about creating a sustainable future and I have dedicated my professional life to finding solutions to make that possible.  My problem is translating that same passion for sustainability into my personal life. 

I am aware of my privilege and the associated carbon footprint of being a Canadian.  Canada is a cold climate with a low population, which means that we burn a lot of fossil fuels simply to keep warm and to get from point A to point B. We also are a developed country and have modern infrastructure that has a large carbon footprint. According to the World Bank, the average GHGs per capita in Canada are 14.1 tons per year[1]. Compare this with emerging or developing countries like China (6.7) or Ethiopia (0.1) and it is clear that we Canadians are consuming way more than our fair share (we are in the top 15 of emitters per capita).  On top of this challenge, I also happen to travel a lot – for work and for pleasure.  In other words, my carbon footprint is a big problem!

I am a believer that infrastructure and policy needs to be in place for people to make meaningful behaviour changes.  For example, if I have the choice between driving a car, taking transit, or riding my bike for similar cost and convenience I will always choose transit or a bike. Yet, sometimes infrastructure just doesn’t support behaviour change and that’s the type of thing that I work on in my professional life.  But does that mean individuals can’t do anything until broader society moves?  Of course not! There are always things people can do to make a difference. 

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about what the world will look like with 9 Billion people.  We are currently at 7.125 Billion and it is predicted that the world will be over 9 Billion by 2050[2].  If you think about the sheer scale of 2 Billion more people it can be a bit overwhelming.  It is hard to imagine how our infrastructure, energy, and food systems will be able to support such a large increase in demand.  One day it just hit me - if we want a fair, good life for 9 Billion people, it will mean that we can’t just do and have everything we want at any time. And so, I started thinking about what I could do to alter my lifestyle to be more conducive to a sustainable world of 9 Billion.  I already offset my CO2 from flights (I am still hoping that biofuels will be used in planes soon; I think it is on the way - check out this article) but are there more things I can do day-to-day?

For years, high profile environmentalists have been saying that we could save the planet if everyone went vegetarian and the recent documentary Cowspiracy has brought more light to the issue.   I only recently watched it, but I have been worried for years about the mass deforestation that happens for livestock production and the general unsustainable practices around the way we produce food and eat (check out a couple of good summary articles about the environmental impacts of food here and here and here).  

And so, I finally decided to become a weekday vegetarian.  

I can already hear you... "Weekday vegetarian?  That sounds like a cop out."  Well, let me explain.  For years I had been thinking about going vegetarian but it always seemed like such a daunting task.  You see, I was raised in the middle of the Alberta prairies where it is widely agreed that there is almost nothing better than a good, BBQed steak.   I love meat.  And I also love to cook and almost all my cooking knowledge centers on meat being the focal point of every meal. What I am trying to say is the thought of eliminating meat completely from my diet just seemed too huge.  Luckily, there is a great quote that says “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good” and I decided to apply it to my diet.  It suddenly became apparent to me that there are no vegetarian police and doing something is better than doing nothing.  For me, at this point, it is better to do something that I can reasonably maintain and greatly decrease the amount of meat and fish I eat (by 71% to be exact).

Here is a great 3:57 TED talk that completely explains the ability to change the choice from completely binary to something more nuanced.

Which brings me to where I am now.  For two months, I have been eating meat only on weekends.  I am still working through my new cooking habits, and learning how to stay full all day, but so far so good.  I don’t really miss meat, and when I decide to eat it I actually think about it and its impact.   A friend of mine sent me a great article by Bill Gates called “Is There Enough Meat for Everyone” where he reviews Vaclav Smil’s book “Should we Eat Meat?” It provides a balanced viewpoint of the impacts of meat and provides a more moderate solution than quitting cold turkey (no pun intended).  

I should also mention that this new diet has got me thinking more about the health impacts of meat as well and I have already lost weight and feel more energetic.  Those weren’t the goals but they are pretty incredible side effects! If you want more information on the health aspects of a meat-heavy diet I highly recommend the documentary Forks Over Knives.

I do hope that one day I can completely convert my diet to vegetarian but this is my first step.  I hope some of you will join me in thinking more consciously about how and what we eat – remember, the health of the planet and the wellbeing of a future population of 9 Billion will greatly be affected by the habits we develop today. 

The Audacity of Youth to Solve Climate Change

Originally published on Medium for Smart Prosperity on April 22, 2016

Today is a truly historic Earth Day! World leaders are gathering in New York City to sign the Paris Agreement that was reached at COP21 this past December. It is expected that over 170 countries will sign on to the accord and this is an important step in our global battle against climate change. As a young Canadian, I am proud that our Federal leaders are not only supporting but also actively enabling this kind of progress.

Climate change is an issue that has implications for every person on the planet but it disproportionately affects future generations, indigenous people, and those living in poverty. This makes it just as much about justice as it is about the environment.

That is why I am thrilled that Canadian Environment and Climate Change Minister, Catherine McKenna, invited me and my fellow Smart Prosperityleader Merrell-Ann Phare from the Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources to participate in a solutions-focused discussion about how Canada will tackle climate change (if you missed it watch here).

Bringing diverse voices to the table is crucial to creating solutions to systemic challenges and I believe youth and indigenous people will have a key role to play in the transition to a sustainable future.

I have spent the majority of my career working with young people and students in the energy system and what I have found is that youth are innately aware of the fact that they will be in leadership positions when climate change impacts will be most prevalent.

Young people want to be active in shaping the future that will be handed to them. The beauty of youth is that it has a wonderful naivety and optimism that makes anything possible. We are not satisfied with rhetoric that pits the environment against the economy or says “it can’t be done.” One of my favourite quotes: “the best part of being young is that we are too young to know we can’t possibly do the things we are already doing.”

Yes, young people lack deep experience, which can only be earned with time. But they also lack the fear of failure and the cynicism that can come from working on these challenging issues for decades. To me, this is the power of youth and why engaging in an intergenerational conversation on sustainable development is crucial.

So what are youth in Canada doing to shape their future?

Well, this blog isn’t long enough for me to write a complete list of all the amazing companies they are starting, research they are engaging in or community groups they are running. Here are just a few examples of some of the innovations I have seen from young Canadians that show that big ideas are possible:

  • Xavier Gordon runs Xergy, a full service project development company for solar PV systems that is about to expand to EV charging infrastructure.
  • David Berliner created Copower to offer innovative financial products for funding clean energy. The company just fully subscribed their first ever green bond!
  • At 18, Bruce Gao invented a software that increases the efficiency of solar PV systems in the developing world known as SimplySolar.
  • Dan Lafferty founded Relight to deploy LED lighting solutions to commercial clients in order to save them energy and money.
  • Eden Full founded SunSaluter while in high school. The innovative technology simultaneously purifies water and creates energy by using the power of gravity and a unique design.

What is your audacious idea? Tell Canada.

The Government of Canada has created a portal for submitting solutions that you can access at www.canada.ca/climateaction and I would encourage everyone — of every age — to submit their ideas.

Canada has a big challenge ahead of us to reduce our emissions and create innovations that will help other countries to do the same. The good news is we also have all the potential in the world, from vast natural resources to deep knowledge and talent to a frontier blazing spirit. Together we can shape the future we want.

What Paris Gave Me

Originally published on Student Energy Blog on December 13, 2015

I like to think I am not a cynical person.  My cofounders and I started Student Energy when we were in our early 20s and were told many times that we couldn’t do it but somehow always kept our optimism and pulled through.  Having said that, working in the environmental space does have a way of hardening you.  It can be slow and the size of the challenge is daunting.  We are up against a status quo that is so entrenched it often feels impossible to change.  I have had many meetings where I returned to the office so discouraged I wondered if I was chasing something that doesn’t exist.  That is why I believe COP21 in Paris provided something much more important than an international agreement – it provided new hope. 

Paris was markedly different from other international climate or sustainability conferences I have attended including prior COP summits and the Rio +20 Earth Summit.  To me, it felt like there was an inexplicable shift in the sentiment and tone of the conversations about the way our future is being approached.  It is difficult to describe but it felt as if there was a general acceptance that the path we are on is not a sustainable one and that change is imminent.  The incumbents were much less vocal in their opposition to this change and in fact they were often partners at the table lending their support to world leaders to take the steps necessary to adopt an agreement that was progressive and future-focused.  

The environmental movement was quieter as well.  Not in a bad way, in a way that felt like we were finally getting what we wanted and that many leaders were now seeing our point of view.  Don’t me get wrong; ENGOs and YOUNGOs were there every step of the way keeping leaders accountable and they can be thanked for the more ambitious parts of the text.  As a good friend of mine, Nimra Amjad from the Canadian Youth Delegation, beautifully put it “it is much harder to keep your friends accountable than to put pressure on your enemies.” 

It is important to note that even with the new commitment from leaders there were still some disappointments such as the lack of recognition of human rights and the soft language around the temperature targets (this infographic does a great job summing up the highlights and challenges of the agreement). No one is saying this agreement is perfect and there will be a lot of time spent deconstructing it on its shortcomings but the fact that an agreement was reached and that it is far better than anything we have seen in the past represents a positive direction. 

When I learned about systems innovation during my graduate studies, I distinctly remember our professors talking about when systems change occurs it is almost in a tipping point fashion.  It seems slow at first and each of the actors are working in their own way and at their own levers - activists putting a topic on the agenda and creating space for the conversation, policy makers responding to the interests of their voters, businesses seeing future risks to their models and reacting, etc.  True innovation doesn’t happen overnight, it happens over time and due to commitment of diverse people with differing interests.  I think with addressing climate change, we are deep in this process and our tipping point is on the horizon. 

The work is just beginning.  We have a long way to go.  Words on paper are not the same as action on the ground.  All I know is that I have renewed excitement for tackling the challenge and I can’t wait to get to work to make the vision that emerged at Paris a reality for our generation and those to come. 

How Can the Energy Sector Engage More Young People?

Originally published on the World Economic Forum Blog on June 24, 2015

We hear it every day, young people aren’t engaged, and they don’t care.

In the world of energy, this is far from the truth. The young people of today have strong moral values, they care about the future of energy and they want to make a difference. But, there is one serious barrier to them getting involved – accessibility of reliable information and forums for engagement. The energy debate is so polarized it is difficult for young people to discern who they should believe, and the unbiased information that does exist is often buried in 300 page academic reports or is distributed via media channels that young people never glance at. For the insta-generation that grew up on YouTube and Facebook, energy information simply does not match how they learn.

At Student Energy, we are in the business of youth empowerment. We have conducted research on barriers to engagement with hundreds of young people from around the globe and two things have become clear: they want a sustainable energy future, but they do not have a good entry point for learning about energy.

Here’s the deal. We all know that a vast amount of energy information exists, the problem is the methods organizations often use to influence in global politics and opinions do not work well with millennials. Print media is the prime example. Many organizations validate their level of influence by landing coverage of their work in newspapers, preferably on the front page, and above the fold – the better the position of the story, the greater its influence. Print readership is dwindling across the board, but when it comes to millennials newspapers are a relic from another era. In Canada, for example, only 7% of people aged 18-34 claim to look at print media.

This illustrates the crux of the issue for millennials that want to engage with energy. The organizations working to change the future by influencing politicians are communicating in a way that inadvertently ignores young people (aka the leaders of 2030 and 2050). Print media is just one of many examples: reports filled with jargon, long lectures and clunky websites all fall short of providing an entry point for young people to get informed.

There are some notable examples of groups who have managed to successfully engage young people – think Barack Obama’s campaign, the Kony video or the New York Climate March. Yet, for young people interested in energy, trust is still a key factor missing in communications efforts.

When millennials want to be informed, they are looking for the whole truth. Growing up in the information age has honed their ability to sense when people are bending the truth, and has made them suspicious that the big oil companies and the environmental groups alike are all leaving out some of the facts. Nine times out of 10 the campaigns that are good at reaching young people are looking to influence them, not inform them – and the target audience is well aware of this.

From Greenpeace vs. Shell in the artic, to the simultaneous problems of energy poverty and the need to cut carbon, the energy debate could not be more polarized. Rather than choosing sides, students are often stuck in the middle, unsure of who to believe.

Apathy is not the problem. Young people care, but they simply aren’t willing to enter into this global shouting match when they don’t have all the facts. This generation has had enough of polarization. In talking about their futures, young people do not sit around debating if they would rather have a vibrant economy or a healthy environment when they turn 50. They want both, and they refuse to believe that it has to be one or the other.

Millennials are willing to work hard to create a sustainable energy future. We just need to empower them by creating the right entry point so they can get in the game.

A Seat at the Table – Youth Engagement in Global Energy and Climate Issues

Originally posted on The Energy Collective - December 11, 2012

As the COP18 Climate Summit comes to a close, the world is reflecting on what transpired in Doha and the massive challenges that remain unaddressed.  While many have questions about the effectiveness of the UN process, I am left with a bigger question as I depart from Qatar – How can we continue to discuss the world’s energy and climate future without meaningfully engaging the generation of people who will be affected most by it?

The group I am referring to is of course the youth of the world, people under the age of 25; young children who look at the world with unwavering optimism; teenagers who are beginning their educational enlightenment; post secondary students who are asking tough questions for the first time about the world around them; and new graduates who are entering the work force ready to tackle any challenge thrown their way.  This is the group who in 20 years from now will be the researchers we look to for answers, the CEOs of major companies making investment decisions, and the governmental leaders of our nations.  They will be in the trenches as 2050 climate targets approach and they will be ensuring the world is a place we all want to live in.

The issue of youth engagement is not a question of apathy – there is massive demand from our generation to be involved in issues around climate and energy.  You don’t have to look further than the COP convention centre to know this.  In the Climate Change Kiosk, a massive exhibition hall of environmentally related groups, youth organizations make up many of the kiosks.  Wandering the halls you will see enthusiastic young people crowded in groups watching the negotiators address the plenary and discussing the contributions of individual countries.  Or you may see a small group wearing t-shirts with very direct calls to action – “get out of the way USA” “Qatar, why host and not lead” “we are part of the solution.”  These manifestations may be construed as naivety or idealism but it in all actuality it is misdirected desire for participation.  This generation wants to be part of the process but is unsure of how to make a significant impact.

When I discuss this with “current leaders”, I am often asked what meaningful participation looks like.  And without fail the answer that is being sought after is something very specific and simple, as if I can define specific metrics or projects that will make the youth feel as if they are being meaningfully engaged. Unfortunately, it is not that easy.  While I could make hundreds of recommendations for programs or initiatives that would make youth feel included in the process the real issue is that the process simply does not recognize that youth are an important stakeholder in this discussion. 

For example, in the Rio +20 draft text, a recommendation was put forth that the UN should create a “High Commissioners for Future Generations” that would represent the views of the youth and ensure that those views are put forward.  The recommendation was part of the pre-conference draft but was removed in the official revision text put forward.  Such a position is a specific and tangible example of what meaningful engagement can look like.  Why? Because it represents recognition at the very top level that the youth perspective is important and should be taken seriously.  We could put forth a thousand small programs on mentorship, input, or engagement for young people but without a tangible action that shows the youth voice is valued; engagement will never truly be achieved. 

Yes, the issues in these negotiations are technical and complex. Yes, the political interactions of nations are difficult and nuanced. Yes, there is a lot at stake and adding more voices to the discussion adds new complications.  But give this generation a chance.  Put faith in us.  Trust that we will do our homework.  Trust that we will stay positive and solutions-based in our approach.  Assume that we will ask tough questions but know that we will not do this just to be difficult.  We will do this to ensure a bright future for ourselves and the many generations that will come after us.