Canada’s Energy Strategy: Not Just a Federal-Provincial Issue

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson talks green business initiatives during a trade mission to China.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson talks green business initiatives during a trade mission to China.

Last month, three Canadian premiers provided a public update on interprovincial efforts to develop a national energy strategy. While their update on the Council of the Federation’s plans opened a needed window on the negotiations, missing from public discussions so far is any reference to the stakes – and potential roles – for municipalities in a Canadian energy strategy.

There are strong arguments for municipalities becoming a bigger part of this process. Rising public sector energy costs and community energy security questions – as well as local economic and environmental concerns related to energy use, production and transportation – mean that municipalities have important interests in Canadian energy policy.

Energy security is an area of growing concern for Canadian communities. Dependence on imported oil leaves public sector organizations, businesses and residents susceptible to fluctuating prices and concerns about supply security. And energy poverty — when households spend over 10 per cent of income on energy costs — is a direct problem for a growing number of Canadians.

Globally, many countries are already transitioning to more sustainable, locally-based and ultimately more secure national energy systems. Municipalities are key players in many of these transitions.  Municipal renewable and district energy projects are an important component of  Germany’s transition towards an 80 percent renewable-based energy system by 2050. In Denmark, municipalities have played an important role that country’s nationwide renewable energy and energy efficiency success.

Energy use is deeply intertwined with climate change.  The same month the Premiers were talking about their work on a national energy strategy,  the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii reported that the concentration of carbon dioxide  in the atmosphere has reached 400 parts per million.  This is 50 parts per million above the safe upper limit for CO2 cited by many scientists, including former NASA head scientist James Hansen.

In 2011 alone, extreme weather events cost Canadians $1.6 Billion, and the bill is projected to get much worse in years to come.  By 2020, the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy estimates the annual economic impact of climate change will be $5 billion and more than $40 billion by 2050. Many of these costs will be borne by local governments.

But it’s not all doom and gloom; a national energy strategy opens the door to new economic opportunities for Canadian communities, as well as opportunities to address imbalances in the relationships between municipalities and other orders of government.

Alternative, renew able and low-carbon energy production is rapidly growing. This is a global transformation, and without concerted action, Canada risks being left behind. Jobs and economic activity in the clean energy sector are increasing, and a comprehensive national energy strategy could help municipalities capitalize on these new opportunities.

An overarching strategy to encourage cooperation toward common goals, such as climate change mitigation, energy security, environmental sustainability and a more diversified economy will benefit all Canadians.  It will be stronger if Canada’s municipal governments, which have such important stakes and expertise to contribute, are part of the process.

Charley Beresford is executive director of the Columbia Institute.  “A Canadian Energy Strategy: Why should local government care?” can be downloaded at