Whitelaw urges Calgary's new council to "creatively" engage with energy sector

Calgary City Hall Source: iStock

Now that Calgary council seems firmly committed to a climate emergency discussion, its challenge will be to ensure action trumps symbolism.

That’s why it should concurrently declare an “Energy Transition Action Plan” process – and make it bigger than Calgary itself.

It is also why Mayor Jyoti Gondek’s first move should be how to creatively engage with the province’s energy sector – to take advantage of key energy transition initiatives already well underway and help council step up its “energy transition literacy” game.

Her second move might be to ask Edmonton to partner in the process – and if that works, invite other Alberta municipalities to join the climate team.

Here’s the case: there’s strength in numbers. And energy is an Alberta thing. Having municipalities go it alone on the climate file risks a lopsided, disjointed, and fragmented approach that fails to recognize the way existing and next-gen energy systems integrate the province. Far better to have a broader Alberta-based climate solution toolkit easily customizable to local contexts.

Indeed, the multi-municipality approach would allow also local government to collectively draft behind the already-strong energy transition momentum pushing the province forward. Yet, for all the terrific initiatives currently under way, they have yet to cohere into a larger integrated narrative that allows ordinary Albertans to “dot connect” between all the moving parts, which is perhaps why various councils haven’t discerned there’s already much afoot.

Indeed, a cross-municipality approach could be the connective tissue required to bring those energy transition parts into sync with each other.

There is, of course, climate work is very specific to individual municipalities. (Calgary already has a climate plan that dates to 2018; it also has a manager responsible for climate and environment). While some of the city’s work will be inwardly focused (building codes, transportation strategy, overall development dynamics et al) the civic leadership opportunity transcends Calgary’s boundaries, as it does with other communities.

Energy transition as the action off-ramp to climate conversations is incredibly complex. It is far more complicated that the simplicity of the name implies, but at its core, energy transition is about mindful choices and strategic tradeoffs on multiple pathways to Net Zero. And being creative about a process that creates community around climate can only help the province’s global and domestic reputation while cities, towns and rural municipalities bask in the halo effect. That’s what will pique the interest of outside investors who want to put capital in something actionable.

It's also important to avoid the semantical trap that the word “emergency” connotes. Instead, the focus needs to be on how to constructively navigate the complexities inherent in all climate talks by establishing consensus around the table stakes. If “emergency” is a catalyst to action, terrific. If it’s a platform for politicized hyperbole, forget it.

For what they’re worth, here are some suggestions, specific to Calgary as it steps into the “climate emergency” space.

Create a climate advisory council comprised of reps from organizations like Transition Accelerator, The Canadian Energy and Climate Nexus, Alberta Innovates and Emissions Reduction Alberta, the Energy Futures Lab as well as the post-secondary community. There’s also the Pembina Institute and Canada West Foundation and the list goes on and on. The key is not to replicate efforts but to synchronize and synthesize where possible with existing momentum.

In parallel to the advisory council, create a citizens’ council to work in lockstep with the advisory committee, and to act as energy transition literacy conduits to their communities.

If the multi-municipality concept has merit, engage directly with the Energy Futures Lab. The Lab’s energy roadshow collaboration toolkit (https://energyfutureslab.com/initiatives/energy-futures-roadshow/) could be readily expanded to link multiple municipalities into a coherent province-wide whole.

Ask each council member to seek out an “energy mentor” from a list of interdisciplinary subject matter experts. Carefully constructed, this “buddy system” could provide councillors with the foundational knowledge elements critical to effective climate and transition discourse.

Invite Peter Tertzakian to an upcoming council meeting to introduce Energyphile (www.energyphile.org) a world-class technology and energy transition toolkit that reinforces the notion of a future state conditioned by past actions – a critical dimension of Alberta’s energy evolution.

In many ways, climate emergency declarations are passe. Often, they’re seen to be politically fashionable and end up foundering on the reefs on symbolism. This is not to in any way devalue their importance – in fact, properly constituted, a climate conversation is critical to any community’s future.

There’s climate talk and there’s climate walk.

Over to you, mayor, and council.

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