OPINION | It's time for Alberta to meet our greatest challenges with our greatest strengths

While the pandemic may have destabilized many parts of our lives, it’s also presented us with the opportunity to take risks that didn’t seem possible before.

It's no longer about whether Alberta can succeed in a low-emission future, it’s about how we’ll succeed

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill. Freeland says that decarbonization must be part of Canada’s post-COVID economic plan. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Alison Cretney, the managing director of the Energy Futures Lab.

In a COVID-19 world, the growing attention on a "post-COVID recovery" increasingly mirrors conversations about how to best achieve a "low-emissions future."

These are discussions where old ideas often meet new ones. And they point the way forward to rich opportunities for the province of Alberta.

As 2030 approaches and Canada scrambles to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels, many Canadian leaders are acknowledging that the race is on.

Take Canada's newly appointed finance minister, Chrystia Freeland, who was recently asked whether decarbonization would be part of Canada's economic plan going forward.

"Of course, it has to be part of it," she said, shortly after she was sworn in as Bill Morneau's replacement.

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"I think all Canadians understand that the restart of our economy needs to be green. It also needs to be equitable. It needs to be inclusive. And we need to focus very much on jobs and growth."

In doing so, Canada could unlock billions of dollars in new investment, and thousands of new high-paying jobs in fields like clean technology and low-emission energy.

It's time for big ideas, in other words. 

Luckily, when it comes to big ideas, Alberta is in no short supply.

The 'clean transition'

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, innovators were already addressing complex challenges in our province, but the change in circumstances has helped garner an even broader interest in the "clean transition."

Furthermore, we're learning that a strong economy and the creation of new jobs doesn't have to be at odds with a low-carbon emission future.

One coalition of innovators, fellows with the Energy Futures Lab, are highlighting numerous opportunities that support the creation of new jobs while also working toward an economy that is "fit for the future."

Alberta can, for example, help demonstrate that hydrogen is an economically viable low-carbon fuel, and serve as its source of production.

Alberta can take the billions of barrels of bitumen in the oilsands and use them to produce everything from high-strength carbon fibre to the vanadium used in flow batteries.

Alberta can take some of its old and inactive oil and gas wells and transform them into zero-carbon sources of geothermal energy.

And it can take wastewater from oil and gas operations and extract high-value elements like lithium, which is key to the supply chain for electric vehicles.

An "Out of Service" tag is attached to an orphan oil well.
There are thousands of orphan and inactive wells in Alberta that can be transformed into zero-carbon sources of geothermal energy. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

It can do all of these things because of the oil and gas industry that has powered Canada's economy for so long, while these new opportunities can in turn help the industry adapt and evolve. Talk about a positive feedback loop. 

Meanwhile, as Canada continues to define what "post-COVID recovery" will look like, the Task Force for a Resilient Recovery, which features a host of eminent and accomplished Canadians, has already kick-started the conversation.

In its preliminary report, it highlighted five bold moves that, if taken over the next five years, could grow Canada's economy and reduce its emissions.

Those ideas include investment in energy efficiency, electric vehicle infrastructure, renewable energy, natural capital and clean technology. And they suggest that in order to be competitive with our peers in America and Europe, those investments will need to total $50 billion.

While that may seem like a big number, Canada projects a $343-billion deficit for the upcoming fiscal year.

A truly pivotal moment

With such high stakes, we need to play our cards right and consider long-term returns on investment. After all, this is a truly pivotal moment with a narrow window. In order to create the equitable, job-focused economy Freeland described, we need to seize this moment. 

We already know that our province is home to innovative and resourceful problem solvers. This is demonstrated time and time again, as Albertans discover alternative uses for bitumen from the oilsands or design extraction methods for lithium that are ethical and environmentally responsible.

The real story isn't about whether Alberta can succeed in a low-emission future, it's about how we'll succeed.

We already have the skills, the assets, the brain power and the creativity to step strategically into a cleaner future. Now we have only to recognize and build on all this province has to offer.

The bottom line is this: we've always welcomed a challenge, so while the pandemic may have destabilized many parts of our lives, it's also presented us with the opportunity to take risks that didn't seem possible before.

The sheer number of opportunities unfolding in Alberta is a reflection of our continued ingenuity. Now the question remains: are we ready to meet our greatest challenges with our greatest strengths?

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.


Alison Cretney is the managing director of the Energy Futures Lab, a coalition of innovators working together to advance solutions to create an energy system that is 'fit for the future.' As a sustainability consultant, social innovator and former oil and gas engineer, Cretney has worked at the intersection of energy, environment and collaboration for nearly 20 years.