The Next Five Years Are Crucial

The Next Five Years Are Crucial

“The next five years are crucial” –  Pembina Institute board chair David Runnalls.

Runnalls, who has been a member of our board of directors for more than a decade, is a past president and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development and a globally respected expert on international affairs, energy transition and sustainability since his start as a researcher for the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, in Stockholm, in 1972.

Runnalls says he is honoured and humbled by the appointment, but that is he looking ahead to the hard work Canada needs to do over the next five years, in order to transition to a clean economy. That work needs to be done as a collaboration between economic, social and environmental stakeholders, he says, something the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has only served to reinforce.

Here he discusses Canada’s most urgent priorities, what the Order of Canada appointment means to him, and what value organizations like the Pembina Institute bring to the table.

We’re at the stage now where we have a kind of unprecedented opportunity. An opportunity to move toward a low-carbon economy, towards net zero.

I can see the beginnings of that conversation, but we’ve never done that before. We’ve never really reached beyond the environmental community to others who have similar issues, and it takes me back to the old days of the Brundtland Commission in 1987. The Brundtland Commission said sustainable development was the integration of economic, social, and environmental sustainability. We’ve never been able to make that work. We’ve always been able to make the link between environment and economics, but it’s always been a little too complicated to try and bring in the social considerations. And I think COVID-19 both forces us to do that and gives us an opportunity to do that.

There’s a general acknowledgement now in the economics community that we both have to take care of people, while a COVID disaster is on, but we also have to prime the pump to get the economy moving again. We have a once-in-a-generation window here, for a couple of years, to decide what we’re going to do next. Spend all this infrastructure money on roads and bridges and tunnels? Or are we going to take the step of beginning to move away from an oil-based economy?

The Pembina Institute started out as a small Alberta-based organization, and gradually evolved into a national organization, with a national influence, and a national reputation — but one that still has its roots in Alberta.

Alberta is going to be one of the keys to how we begin to move away from a carbon-based economy. We have some credibility in Edmonton and Calgary, which lots of national groups don’t. But we also have lots of credibility in Toronto and Ottawa and Vancouver and Edmonton. That’s a natural place for us to be — with our roots in the middle of the petroleum business, but our ability to begin to see ways of transitioning into the next level. And it’s not going to be easy. It’s a very complex set of relationships. It’s obviously very complicated politically, very complicated intellectually, but I think we have the brainpower and the reputation to be able to do this sort of thing. It’s going to be a critical role in society, as we try to think our way through to how we get to net zero in 2050.

If you assume, as I do, that the climate science is now pretty hard, then the time between now and 2030 is going to be absolutely critical. If we just sit there and twiddle our thumbs and don’t do anything until we get to 2030, the problem is going to be almost impossible to solve. We’ve got to get going now. We’ve got to begin to reduce emissions dramatically if we’re being able to hit the scientific targets.

But there’s also another set of things going on at the same time and that is that Canada has real advantages, but it also has real disadvantages. This is a high-carbon economy that uses a lot of energy and one of whose principal exports is oil. There’s a real challenge here as to how we deal with this. This is a lot harder for export-oriented natural resource-based economies, than it is for places like Europe, which essentially is a net importer of virtually every kind of natural resource. It’s going to be more difficult, but we’re going to have to do it.

“We’ve got to get going now. We’ve got to begin to reduce emissions dramatically if we’re being able to hit the scientific targets.”
If you look at the way in which the automobile industry is going now, for example — all the big players are spending their money on electric vehicles, all their research and development. There’s going to be a shift to electric vehicles. The renewable energy industry is growing [incredibly fast]. That means that traditional energy producers are going to be under real pressure because their export markets are going to shrink, their labour forces are going to shrink, and they’re going to have real transition issues. Within the next 10 years, there are a number of big oil companies that say that oil demand globally is going to peak no later than 2030 and maybe even earlier than that. There’s going to be huge pressure on the high-cost oil producers, dying to become more efficient or go out of business.

The Pembina Institute is in a very good position to contribute to how we transition away from the high-carbon economy, without leaving everybody high and dry, and without leaving huge swathes of unemployment throughout all of Western Canada. Pembina is in a good position to begin to work through these issues and we have to start now. Because if we do it now, we can do it gradually. If we keep waiting until 2030, it’s going to be very abrupt, and it’s going to be much more chaotic, and it’s going to be much harder to do.

We are now starting to see a serious shift. There is a major shift in public opinion in every country, including the United States, about the need to do something about CO2 emissions and biodiversity loss. Governments are now being pushed in ways that they have never been pushed before to do something about it.


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