As they do every year, Ottawa’s Standing Committee on Finance is asking Canadians for their best ideas on how the federal government can use its purse to solve national challenges. In recent years, the committee has focused on challenges related to productivity, competitiveness and inclusive growth. This year, the federal government is on the hunt for ideas related to climate change and how it can stimulate Canada’s transition to a low-carbon economy.
This is a worthy goal and the federal government has access to significant levers to achieve it. Fiscal tools like a national price on carbon are important and have been the centerpiece of the effort so far. However, barring a higher price on carbon, the federal government will need to ramp up action and investment elsewhere to meet emission reduction targets.
Enhanced federal support for climate-related innovation activity is one avenue that could yield significant progress. Stronger federal investments in applied research at Canada’s polytechnics and colleges is a good place to start. Polytechnics are where businesses, governments and non-profits seeking to create a cleaner future go to secure specialized research expertise and services, turning their climate-focused ideas into action, commercializing their products and assisting as they adopt new technologies.
The climate-related innovation activity being undertaken at Canada’s polytechnics is significant. Alongside their partners, polytechnics are building zero-emission vehicles and the infrastructure needed to support them, like micro-grids and better batteries. They are creating new energy-efficient construction materials and green-building technologies to ensure our buildings – new and old – emit as little as possible. They are finding more sustainable ways to produce food and they are expanding the horizon of what’s possible for our renewable energy sources. They are also working to make our traditional, non-renewable sources of energy cleaner and more efficient (we did just buy a pipeline, after all). They are innovating in supply-chain management and advanced manufacturing to reduce emissions in the transportation and production of goods.
The benefits of this innovation activity go well beyond the climate. Conducting innovation activity with a demonstrated market demand in partnership with employers means that federal investments also grow businesses and create jobs. Additionally, almost all of the innovation activity undertaken at Canada’s polytechnics involve students. This means the benefits extend well into the future, developing the next generation of innovation-enabled and climate-focused graduates. With stronger federal investments in polytechnic applied research, we can make progress on climate-related targets, grow Canadian businesses and support our talent pipeline.
At present, polytechnic-employer partnered innovation activity is funded exclusively through periodically awarded federal grants. Canada’s businesses operate 24/7 and the challenges they face rarely align with a schedule. The same could be said of our climate concerns. Making polytechnic-employer partnered applied research stronger will require predictable, multi-year support that can be used to build client-centered capacity to initiate projects, assess needs, develop business partnerships, mobilize knowledge and engage students. A truly measured response to climate change includes adequate funding for the innovation activity required to move the needle.
If Ottawa is serious about transitioning to a low-carbon economy, we need an all-hands-on-deck approach. Canada’s polytechnics – already leaders in the delivery of innovation-enabling services to employers in all sectors – are positioned to lead innovation-centric climate solutions. It’s time to activate this network in the bid to address climate change.