New advocacy group joins push for green recovery from COVID-19's economic shock

There is likely to come a time when governments will use stimulus spending to boost their wounded economies. But nearly all of the federal government’s attention is still consumed by the profound challenges of containing COVID-19 and reopening communities amid an ongoing health threat.

Environmentalists want stimulus funds to focus on 'shovel-worthy' sustainable projects

A man in a suit mimes fueling up a hydrogen vehicle at a fueling station in Vancouver while photographers capture the moment.
In this file photo, Oliver Bishop, general manager of hydrogen at Shell, manipulates a hydrogen refuelling station in Vancouver in 2018. The federal government may look at hydrogen production as part of a sustainable recovery plan. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Official plans for an economic recovery package in Canada — green or otherwise — are still in their infancy.

There is likely to come a time when governments will use stimulus spending to boost their wounded economies. But nearly all of the federal government's attention is still consumed by the profound challenges of containing a contagious disease and reopening communities amid an ongoing health threat.

Civil society, though, is not waiting to push the Liberal government to focus any recovery plan on emissions-reducing and sustainable projects — a push that now includes a group of environmental, financial and political figures who are hoping to draft a set of recommendations over the next two months.

The independent "task force on a resilient recovery" includes individuals who are already prominent in the discussion around moving toward a greener future, but also the former chief risk and strategy officer with the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan (Barbara Zvan), the president of the Insurance Bureau of Canada (Don Forgeron), and a former deputy minister in the federal department of finance (Michael Horgan).

Among the group's 14 members are also three former political advisers: Mira Oreck, who was a senior official in the office of British Columbia Premier John Horgan; Mitchell Davidson, former director of policy for Ontario Premier Doug Ford; and Gerald Butts, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The task force's stated goal is to help seize a "once-in-a-generation" opportunity to build back "better," according to an announcement to be released today.

Gerald Butts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's former principal secretary, is a member of a new group that describes itself as "a task force on a resilient recovery." (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Bruce Lourie, the environmentalist and author who is now president of the Ivey Foundation, which helped organize the group, told CBC News the impetus was twofold: both to make sure the government didn't take its eye off the ball and invest in the "wrong kinds" of areas for the future, and to continue advancing work the foundation had already begun before the pandemic.

The task force's report will add to a growing supply of green-focused analysis. The Canada Green Building Council released a set of recommendations last week and a coalition of clean energy experts and operators has also written to the prime minister with suggestions.

The group launching on Tuesday also holds out the possibility of showing some cross-partisan support for a set of green ideas.

"A carbon tax is obviously what people think about when they think about green policy, but there's lots of other things that can be done that are still green," said Davidson, who co-authored the Ontario Progressive Conservative party's platform in 2018. "I think that the question is, if we're doing recovery projects and we're keeping a focus on environmentalism, we should also keep a focus on things that matter to individuals as well which is getting them back to work, putting money into people's pockets."

Three-part test for areas of action

Ahead of any final recommendations from his group, Lourie already sees some areas for potential action.

First, the federal government could focus on plans to retrofit homes and buildings — which account for 12 per cent of this country's greenhouse gas emissions — to increase the energy efficiency of Canada's physical structures. Such an initiative would create work for tradespeople across the country while reducing both energy costs and emissions.

The Liberal platform in last year's election already promised free energy audits and interest-free loans for homeowners and landlords as part of a plan to retrofit 1.5 million homes. But expanded funding could drive even faster and deeper change.

As part of a long-term project, the federal government could look to expand the production of hydrogen, particularly in Alberta, Lourie says — an idea that is now being studied by another group in that province.

Federal funding for municipal transit systems could also be used to expand the use of electric buses.

The task force says it will evaluate ideas according to a three-part test — determining whether policies are economically timely and lasting, environmentally sound, and both equitable and feasible.

There are other issues that will come to bear on any recovery plan.

The current economic downturn has, for instance, disproportionately impacted women, service industries and low-wage workers. The health crisis has brought new attention to supply lines and how much Canada depends on international suppliers for important products like medical equipment. The state of long-term care, particularly in Ontario and Quebec, has been exposed as a significant weakness.

There will no doubt be calls to address such concerns with new investments.

The timing and implementation of any recovery plan will also depend on how well COVID-19 is contained and how long significant health-related restrictions remain in place.

Shovel ready vs. shovel-worthy projects

But there is significant pressure, both in Canada and abroad, to make sure that government stimulus is used to ensure long-term sustainability in the face of that other global threat — and that speaks to how much the climate conversation has advanced over the last 10 years.

A decade ago, when policymakers were trying to counter that last significant recession, the focus was "shovel-ready" projects — infrastructure projects that could begin quickly, providing employment and economic activity for the short term. Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna has already adopted that phrase to explain how her department is analyzing potential projects.

In this downturn, there is talk instead of pursuing "shovel-worthy" investments — projects that cannot only get started quickly, but that also deserve to be funded because they fit within larger goals like reducing emissions.

In the United States, the stimulus package of 2009 did include significant funding for clean energy. But climate change was largely relegated to a secondary concern once global stock markets started to crash.

In 2020, there is a clearer and more widespread understanding that climate change is a central and immediate issue, even amid a global health crisis and an unprecedented economic shock.

"Ten years later, we're much further along in terms of our understanding of the importance of having a more diverse economy," Lourie said. "And having an economy that's going to be one that will support our country in 10 years, not just in 10 weeks or 10 months."


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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