With the clock ticking on climate change and deadlines on emission reductions, Canada is being urged to invest more in clean energy as the world transitions away from a reliance on fossil fuel.

"This is my plea to Canada … we need a beachhead in North America," Jeremy Rifkin, president of the non-profit Foundation on Economic Trends, told a meeting of provincial energy ministers, international experts, environmentalists and Indigenous leaders in Winnipeg this week.

"We need to move in three generations. We need bold leadership."

Rifkin is advising the European Union and China on their energy transitions. 

"The European Union is on the right track with our Smart Europe plan. China is on the right track with Internet Plus China.… But we're going to lose four years right now with the new White House administration," he told reporters after the opening session Wednesday.

"I don't expect much from the [United States] federal government."

In June, U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, striking a major blow to worldwide efforts to combat climate change.

The Generation Energy conference is part of Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr's attempt to form a new national energy strategy.

More than 600 participants will discuss Canada's path to affordable energy, energy governance and Canada's role in the global energy transition.

Modernization, not 'decarbonization'

Experts agree fossil fuels will have to be phased out in the next 30 to 50 years, making this an important and sometimes challenging time of transition, said Dr. Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, during the opening session. He works with expanding economies to scale up their clean-energy production.

"I wouldn't subscribe to the idea that we won't need oil anymore and a country like Canada, a reliable partner, a reliable producer, reliable exporter has a role to play in the global energy markets — especially in Asia, both in terms of oil and gas," Birol said.

He added production must be sustainable and efficient, using the best technology available.

"It is not a black-and-white movie. We need renewable energies, solar, new technologies — but at the same time we need oil and gas for the next years to come in order to feed the cars, trucks, petrochemicals, aviation, in shipping across the world, which are more than 90 per cent run by oil."

The cost of solar power has dropped to half of what it was three years ago and it's expected to halve again by 2020, Birol said. In 2016, more than 50 per cent of all new power plants were solar energy.

Wind turbines

Wind turbines in operation north of Shelburne, Ont. Improvements in turbine technology have reduced the cost of wind energy, an international conference in Winnipeg heard Wednesday. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Meanwhile, improvements in turbine technology have also reduced the cost of wind energy. 

"We need to think of energy revolution not as 'decarbonization' but modernization," said Rainer Baake, state secretary of Germany's Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy.

Germany has a goal to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 to 90 per cent by 2050 — the first industrialized nation in the world to attempt emissions reductions to that degree.

But even that aggressive target may not be fast enough, Baake told the conference.

"Don't worry about saving the planet. It's about us. Can we adjust?" he said.

Canada's energy strategy

This forum is part of an attempt to answer two questions, said Canada's Jim Carr: what will Canada's energy strategy look like in a generation and how do we get there?

"The tension between the political moment and generational decision requires bold leadership," Carr said.

He acknowledged it's not an easy lift, but said he has confidence Canadians can come to a consensus.

"The finest brains in the world are now bearing down on innovation and entrepreneurship and creativity, and I'm very confident that Canada can compete well in that world," Carr told reporters after the opening session.

Canada is already investing in clean, renewable energy through hydroelectric projects, Carr said, adding there is federal interest in building east-west transmission lines.

"I think it's always made sense to develop hydro resources in Canada and don't forget, I'm a Manitoban and I grew believing that as long as we have swift-flowing rivers, we would produce some of the finest, cleanest energy in the world," he said.

"There are plenty of possibilities, not only east-west, but don't forget the inter-ties between Canada and the United States."

Carr urged Canadians to submit questions, comments and suggestions for meeting climate change goals as part of the federal government's Generation Energy initiative.