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Whitelaw: Energy transition homework crucial for Calgary's new city council

JWN - November 9, 2021

Calgary mayor Jyoti Gondek is more astute than many naysayers give her credit for as she pushes the climate emergency button. To understand why, just take an imaginary step outside of T2P (downtown Cowtown) and look back in. There’s a tsunami of change called energy transition sweeping the world. For companies, communities, and sectors bright enough to get on its crest, riding the transition wave will be key to navigating the complex pressures squeezing in on the economy and environment. Those who ignore the swell’s depth and strength do so at their peril.

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Indeed, energy transition is already well underway in Alberta, in many ways that are obvious and in many that aren’t. The energy industry is slowly becoming a better storyteller, but its efforts are still often clumsy and fragmented; frequently clouded by hyper-politicized resentment that forces the sector back a step back for every one it takes forward. But to catalogue all the extant energy transition efforts in the province, would produce a phenomenally deep read of talent, initiative and innovation, much of it world-class.

It’s too bad so few people take time to thumb through the catalogue.

But if the mayor and council are to be effective in debating energy transition – and flipping the notion of ‘emergency’ into a constructive opportunity context – there’s much homework to be done. Council cannot proceed from a place of ignorance, or the entire effort will fall victim to its own myopia. Municipal government is frequently referred to as the level of government “closest to the people” – that itself is a golden opportunity to infuse the broader Calgary population with a better sense of what energy transition is all about and how as citizens they’re also surfing the transition tsunami, whether they know it or not.

Like voting, energy transition is about balancing choices and tradeoffs – and doing so from a place of being well-informed.

Fortunately, Calgary, unlike most other major municipalities which have declared climate emergencies, sits on top of some of the world’s best instructors.

Mayor and council will need to know about CRIN and COSIA, the Clean Resource Innovation Network and Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance respectively and the phenomenal transition work therein. They will need to know about the Energy Futures Lab and Avatar Innovations, both organizations creatively tackling the opportunities presented by energy transition dynamics. The Petroleum Technology Alliance of Canada is a global leader in emissions thinking. It’s supported by terrific companies like Highwood Emissions Management lead by Jessica Shumlich and Dr. Thomas Fox. Technology companies like Acceleware, headed by Geoff Clark, are redefining sustainable approaches to resource development.

The list of learning opportunities and instructors is a long one – and it’s best in class.

To start, that’s why mayor and council should offer themselves up as learning guinea pigs – and why they should give Dr. Brad Hayes a call.

Hayes is one of Canada’s leading geoscientists. He’s also a director on the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources (CSUR) board and leads the organization’s outreach efforts. Right now, Hayes is leading the creation of a unique learning tool: a massive open online course (MOOC) focusing on energy transition in partnership with the University of Alberta. The MOOC, which will launch early in 2022, is built around understanding the interlocked dependencies between energy systems and choices. It will be taught by academics and practitioners linked through an interdisciplinary approach designed to imbue the transition debate with constructive coherence.

Mayor Gondek and her council are ideal MOOC learners. If they signed up and brought their learnings to the climate emergency debates, the tone and tenor of the conversation may be markedly constructive.

Gondek is right when she declares that a climate emergency conversation could be key to attracting new investment – but it will all be in the way the dialogue goes. If it’s simply a brow-furrowing, hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing exercise, it will do little to catch the interest and imagination of outside dollars. If it becomes too politicized and council showboats into camps (as it has been wont to do), it will spin uselessly in place. In that context, Gondek could use the debate to unify her new council and keep it engaged in productive dialogue.

But if managing “emergency” comes from a place of constructive collaboration and knowledge-sharing, Calgary has an opportunity to demonstrate a leadership position well beyond its borders.


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