Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

COVID-19 is hastening the green economy, and we are far behind

We need to prepare now — right now — for a post-oil Newfoundland and Labrador, writes contributor Lori Lee Oates.

N.L. is backing the oil industry exactly when it should be shifting focus, author argues

In Newfoundland and Labrador, we immediately need both jobs and training for workers who want to transition out of oil, writes contributor Lori Lee Oates. (Nicholas Hillier Photography/Submitted by Lori Lee Oates)

This week Premier Dwight Ball, Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady, new Memorial University president Vianne Timmons and two industry associations held a news conference, calling on the federal government to provide subsidies for oil companies in the Newfoundland and Labrador offshore industry.

Their message demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of what has to happen to meet Paris Accord emission reduction targets for 2030. It also ignored the research on where the global economy is going, as other nations prepare green economic stimulus packages.

In May 2018, the International Labour Organization released a report that estimated 24 million new jobs would be created by 2030 in the move to a green economy.

It also predicted a loss of six million jobs in the oil sector. However, that represents a net gain of 18 million jobs that will be created by this fundamental shift. Green energy is simply more job-intensive than the fossil fuel energy sector and a far better bet for the economic future of this province.

What this means for Newfoundland and Labrador is that we need to take steps immediately to ensure we take full advantage of the green economic recovery. We also need to increase training opportunities.

Like any revolution, those who get there first will seize the high ground and become the new centres of excellence. Green energy services are a product that we will be able to export globally, and they will be in high demand for decades to come.

This is an opportunity for us to fully enter the global service economy for the first time in our history.

'Green energy services are a product that we will be able to export globally, and they will be in high demand for decades to come,' writes Lori Lee Oates. (Patrick Pleul/dpa via Associated Press)

The writing is on the wall

For some years now, financial analysts such as former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney and the International Monetary Fund have warned of the dangers of ignoring climate change in financial planning.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hastened the move to a green economy. This is likely the best opportunity we will ever have, as a planet, to get on track to meet greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, as outlined by the 2015 Paris Accord.

Even before the pandemic, the IMF was warning against subsidizing the oil industry. A 2019 paper maintained we must factor in the cost of external factors like natural disasters and health care to calculate the true cost of fossil fuel subsidies.

Furthermore, the IMF found there was a net economic gain to ending oil subsidies.

Indeed, wildfires in Australia this year are expected to cost $100 billion. There is a very real price tag on failing to deal with climate change. Other costs include drought, starvation, war, pollution and all manner of natural disasters.

Experts, including scholars and analysts in this province, have been pressing for jurisdictions that are heavily dependent on oil to diversify.

In the absence of an economic update from the provincial government so far this year, best estimates are that Newfoundland and Labrador will run a deficit of $2 billion to $3 billion.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, we immediately need both jobs and training for workers who want to transition out of oil. We must insist that the federal and provincial governments prioritize workers over oil companies and their major global contractors.

Professor Jeff Colgan of the Watson Institute at Brown University has argued that high-priced oil jurisdictions such as Canada will be wiped out of the global industry as part of the post-coronavirus oil shock. Colgan, who is Canadian, also predicted a high level of bankruptcies and mergers in the sector.

While the oil industry has long depended on subsidies, some experts are now urging nations to invest in green energy, rather than recover jobs that will have to be replaced in a few years to meet 2030 climate goals.

One of the findings of the 2019 IMF study was that Canada invests $60 billion annually in oil subsidies. Notably, most of this money goes to oil operators and Tier 1 contractors that are headquartered outside of this country.

Oil subsidies largely do not go to supply and service companies that are homegrown and based in Newfoundland and Labrador. These are also companies that could easily transition into supplying lower carbon energy sectors, with fairly minimal supports.

Frankly, our provincial trade associations should be doing a better job of advocating for transitional funding for local companies, rather than championing the cause of major multinationals.

The fact that the oil sector is in such desperate need of subsidies to survive demonstrates that it is not nearly as lucrative as it claims it to be. The data that proponents present on the economic benefits of oil never factors in the total costs of oil subsidies.

Wildfires in Australia this year are expected to cost $100 billion. (Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty)

The year the world woke up to climate change

Oxford Dictionaries chose "climate emergency" as its word of the year for 2019. We can expect massive shifts in energy sectors globally during the coming decade.

In 2019, 11,000 scientists across the globe signed off on an article in Bioscience, based on climate data from the last 40 years. They recommended the following:

  • Replacing fossil fuels with low-carbon renewables and cleaner sources of energy. For them this means existing fossil fuels should be left in the ground.
  • Promptly reducing emissions.
  • Quickly curtailing habitat and biodiversity loss.
  • Eating a mostly plant-based diet, while reducing global consumption of animal products.
  • Shifting governance goals from GDP growth to human well-being.
  • Stabilizing the world's population, with family planning services should be available to all people. We must remove barriers to full gender equity and achieve primary and secondary education, as a global norm.

It has become increasingly clear since the Paris Accord was negotiated in 2015 that keeping an increase in global warming to two Celsius degrees is not enough.

We also now know that we must keep global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels in order to prevent irreparable damage to the natural environment. Last year ended with a global average temperature of 1.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has warned that we are way off track in meeting either the 1.5-degree or two-degree targets that the Paris agreement called for.

Time is quickly running out for us to avert the worst impacts of climate disruption.

Canada, notably, is a signatory to the Paris Accord and has ratified it at home.

A pumpjack works at a well head on an oil and gas installation near Cremona, Alta. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The future is now

Increasingly, there have been calls for green energy stimulus spending since the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.

The Oxford Review of Economic Policy has accepted a study that surveyed 231 financial experts across central banks, finance ministries and economics experts throughout the G20.

These experts identified five areas of economic stimulus which could displace the fossil fuel intensive economy, rather than entrench it. These include:

  •  Building efficiency retrofits.
  •  Investing in education and training;
  •  Natural capital investment;
  •  Clean research and development (not oil R&D).

Notably, our government is cutting post-secondary education, in both the university and college systems, at a time when we need to be retraining people for the green economy.

The study also found that without a green recovery, it will be nearly impossible to meet the goals of the Paris Accord. However, if the world comes together on green stimulus, this will be nearly sufficient to mitigate the most disastrous impacts of climate change that are predicted within the next 10 years.

The European Union is now poised to announce the world's greenest economic recovery package. Proposals include:

  • 80 billion euros (about $121 billion Cdn) to boost electric vehicle sales.
  • Doubling investment in charging networks.
  • Exempting EVs from value-added taxes.
  • 91 billion euros (about $138 billion Cdn) a year to seal up drafty buildings.
  • Plans to offer homebuyers green mortgages (for energy efficient homes).
  • 10 billion euros (15 billion Cdn) annually to support renewal energy and hydro infrastructure.

We are already behind on retraining

Governments and oil companies should have been retraining and transitioning oil employees for some years now.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, we immediately need both jobs and training for workers who want to transition out of oil. We must insist that the federal and provincial governments prioritize workers over oil companies and their major global contractors.

In their stimulus response, they must also prioritize the green economy over the oil economy, as many nations are already doing. If we do this right, we can become a green energy centre of excellence in the global environment.

However, for that to happen, we must act on building the green economy right now.

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Lori Lee Oates


Lori Lee Oates, Ph.D. is a lecturer in the M.Phil. (Humanities) program at Memorial University and has worked in the senior levels of the provincial and federal governments.