Climate change: Pragmatic solutions to a global challenge

Canada’s politicians, scientists, Indigenous leaders and youth agree we are facing a climate crisis. While there isn’t a clear consensus on what to do about it or how quickly, this is one of those rare moments when a country as diverse as Canada can rally around an objective of truly national scope. It is a cop out to say there are bigger polluters elsewhere in the world – cleaning up at home is our first and best chance to address climate change.

At last week’s Ecocity World Summit, co-hosted by BCIT and the City of Vancouver, it became clear how frustratingly simplistic it is to argue over the legitimacy of a carbon tax versus an energy corridor. We need both market-based incentives to reduce carbon and national leadership on issues that cut across jurisdictions, plus a whole lot more. Action is required at the individual level – around consumption certainly, but also to keep climate action top of mind among the politicians who represent us and the businesses we patronize. Our collective institutions – communities, provinces, businesses and organizations – must consider water use, energy consumption, building codes, public transit and the efficiency of recycling regimens. This is where the hard work will be done, with pragmatic solutions that make all the difference. Nationally, we need leadership that goes beyond international targets. Here, solutions must recognize the unique realities of regional economies and interests, encouraging approaches that share effort and benefit in roughly equal measure.

Canada’s climate and geography make home heat and personal vehicles essential, so it is perhaps unsurprising that these represent two of our greatest emission challenges. There is evidence that carbon pricing changes consumer behaviour. It stands to make more Canadians consider carpooling, electric vehicles and solar panels. Within a generation, we’ve accepted new norms and new technologies to reduce our energy and water consumption. Home and office recycling have become the norm.  Most Canadians have a stash of reusable grocery bags. We have proven it possible to change personal consumption habits and there’s no reason to think we can’t go further. A carbon tax acts as an incentive for Canadians to think more carefully about our individual carbon footprints.

At the collective level, most Canadians realize recycling programs aren’t as efficient as they need to be. Heating and air conditioning systems in offices and public buildings are tragically wasteful, making it painfully cold in summer and uncomfortably hot in the winter. Public transit is often inconvenient, over-crowded and unreliable. At Ecocity, it occurred to me that many of these challenges are being addressed at Canada’s polytechnics with pragmatic ideas and solutions that stand to make Canada a leader on climate change action. As campuses develop new buildings, they are increasingly “net zero,” using smart sensors, green roofs and solar panels to reduce their carbon footprint and engage students in the concept of green building. These buildings illustrate what’s possible more broadly. At BCIT, they run workshops for the construction industry about BC’s new building codes and are experimenting with micro-grid and electric vehicle infrastructure. Red River College has a research centre dedicated to sustainable solutions in the transportation sector, focusing on the use of renewable fuels, fuel efficiency and emerging technologies in Canadian weather conditions. At SAIT in Calgary, applied research focusing on clean technology for the energy sector is underway, developing strategies and solutions to reduce industry impacts to air, soil and water. These are solutions that can be shared and scaled.

At the national level, we have the ability to think trans-Canada infrastructure big. One Ecocity presenter raised the concept of sharing energy resources across jurisdictions, taking advantage of opportunities to balance energy production realities and peak demand across time zones. We also need to recognize the critical economic contribution of Canada’s oil and gas sector. Rather than hobbling the sector’s capacity to get oil to market, we need to find ways to engage their ingenuity to both reduce the sector’s environmental impact and make Canada a global leader for sustainable distribution practices.

The federal government is also in a position to ensure applied research underway at polytechnics and other institutions has sufficient resources to focus on the environment and the country’s other big challenges. By providing institutions with the resources they need to identify and support industry partners, engage students and faculty, and develop the cutting-edge facilities and equipment they need, we stand to leverage promising work into innovative solutions. Because of the way polytechnics engage their industry partners, intellectual property generally vests with those best positioned to commercialize it – their industry partners. This is the best possible way to turn pragmatic solutions at home into sustainable economic opportunities around the world.

For me, the Ecocity lesson was that no solution is too small and, equally, none are too ambitious. Addressing climate change – in individual, collective and pan-Canadian ways – starts at home, but has tremendous economic potential if we act quickly to become leaders. There’s no telling what’s possible when we take on big challenges collaboratively.

About the Author

Sarah Watts-Rynard, Chief Executive Officer at Polytechnics Canada

Sarah Watts-Rynard joined Polytechnics Canada as Chief Executive Officer in July 2018. Her background is in marketing communications, advocacy and non-profit management, including eight years focused on the important role tradespeople play in the Canadian economy. Sarah is Vice-Chair of the Canadian Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, Trades and Technology (WinSETT Centre) and sits on the Boards of the CWB Welding Foundation and the Canadian Club of Ottawa.