Climate change spurs business opportunity

Aligning the politics, science and economics of sustainability for a green economy
Thursday, April 2, 2015
By Rebecca Melnyk

Tucked into the back of the Metro Convention Centre at Toronto’s Green Living Show on March 27, 2015, a group of scientists, politicians and entrepreneurs gathered to discuss Canada’s dismal fight against climate change in comparison to that of its international trading partners.

The Road Map to a Sustainable Canada panelists seemed to agree that besides meagre environmental action, Canada is missing out on being privy to an abundant “green economy” or what the United Nations defines as an economy that generates jobs and wealth, while reducing environmental impact.

Since a plethora of scientific evidence hasn’t fully accelerated such a culture, two questions looming on all three back-to-back panels were: how do sustainability issues get solved; and how can people be motivated to make sacrifices for long-term gains?

Stewart Elgie, professor of law and economics at the University of Ottawa and founder of Eco Justice, now Canada’s largest non-profit environmental organization, suggested that behaviour can change, not only based on environmental alignment, but also because it makes business sense.

“Putting a price on pollution really can change behaviour and drive sustainability,” he said, referring to evidence like B.C.’s 16 per cent decline in fuel consumption post carbon tax or how 70 per cent of Toronto’s population stopped using plastic bags after the five-cent levy.

“If companies got a bill for the costs and impacts of climate change associated with power and fossil fuels, all of a sudden, solar and wind power would cost less,” added Elgie. “Companies would change the way they produce power because it would make economic sense as customers would demand it.”

Aaron Freeman, founder and president of GreenPAC, an organization that builds environmental leadership in politics, stressed the importance of making environmental issues politically relevant, with champions in every major political party.

“I think we have large, global, long-term environmental problems facing the culture,” he said. “We can educate people on those problems, we can create game-changing technologies, but at the end of the day, if government isn’t at the table to solve problems with us, the problems won’t get solved.”

Canada was once at the top of the global pack in terms of sustainability. The country passed the Species at Risk Act, which was the last major environmental law to be passed on the federal level. “That was more than thirteen years ago,” added Freeman.

Since then, studies have been tracking the country’s apathetic descent. A recent report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) shows Canada ranks last on climate change performance out of all OECD countries. Other studies put forth from initiatives like the Eco Fiscal Commission estimate the annual value of global-themed technology markets is $815 billion. Of the 65 publicly traded companies on the Cleantech index, only one is Canadian.

The backbone of rallying for increased economic involvement in climate change action is scientific evidence. One group of researchers working to mobilize champions and heighten public dialogue is attempting to close the gap between science and politics. During the panel discussion, Dr. Catherine Potvin, negotiator on the UN framework for climate change and biology professor at McGill University, unveiled a new study called Acting on Climate Change: Solutions from Canadian Scholars.

The report, which is a culmination of two years’ work, outlines specific short-term policy orientations to drive action and reduce greenhouse gases by 80 per cent in the next 35 years.

Proposed ideas include enforcing a national carbon tax or cap-and-trade program, eliminating subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and weaving sustainability and climate change into urban and regional landscape planning.

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party of Canada, was also on hand to remind the audience of Canada’s negotiated treaty in 2015 that takes effect in 2020.

“This is a scientific deadline; this is a real deadline; we don’t get another chance,” May said to the audience. “The atmosphere is not interested in negotiating with humanity.”

Marci Burchfield, a regional planner for Toronto, executive director of the Neptis Foundation and consultant on various initiatives like the Greater Golden Horseshoe and the Greenbelt Plan, also singled out an immediate price on carbon along with a focused framework to help municipalities adopt GHG emissions targets.

And with greater focus on urban areas, targets become more attainable. More than 80 per cent of the Canadian population lives in cities, consuming more energy than rural occupants. Meanwhile, the building sector accounts for 11.4 per cent of GHG emissions.

“At the same time, cities are the hubs of innovation,” noted Dr. Liat Margolis, assistant professor in the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design at the University of Toronto and director of the Green Roof Innovation Testing (GRIT) Laboratory. “They’re economic, cultural, technology and educational centres. The potential is enormous in terms of what could happen.”

Cities are first responders to crisis and trend starters. “And those implemented projects on the ground are the ones that create evidence that green projects are feasible, which build a public will and legislation towards green building construction standards,” Margolis emphasized.

She has witnessed the resistance to innovation, as evidenced through her research into green roofs and solar technology. The Toronto Green Roof Bylaw, for example, was forecast to create resentment among private developers, but eventually proved successful as a market asset with true real estate value.

“Units that have access to green roofs or look over green roofs can be marketed that way, besides the environmental benefits,” she said. “Green building technologies equal dollar signs and this has been proven again and again. Implementation on a city scale is most evident of its successes.”

There’s a whole crop of innovative companies creating sustainable technologies, working on municipal and provincial levels, while also attempting to position Canada as a global leader.

“Bigger isn’t always better,” said Tonya Surman, founding chief executive officer of the Centre for Social Innovation. “I think Canada does small beautifully. Part of the success strategy is valuing the smaller, early-stage organizations, ones that may never become exportable.”

Rather than focusing only on losing assets to another country, Surman said it’s also about respecting micro entrepreneurs that make cities rich and diverse.

But as some of these companies scale up, and there are companies that want to turn global, there may be a probable gap left behind. More home-grown incentives, therefore, are what many Canadian entrepreneurs are looking for.

When significant investments from Asia and California pushed Gimmy Chu, chief executive officer of Nanoleaf, to think about where he should expand his business, Chu chose Toronto. Advisors were nudging him to move to Silicon Valley, but Chu decided it made business sense to be based in Toronto due to programs, like Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), that help start-ups.

Ahmed Badruddin, chief executive of Watrhub, a data mining company that matches water technology companies with the needs of water and wastewater systems, also applauds compelling programs, along with talented engineers and data and water experts, as the reason for building the majority of its team in Toronto.

With emerging and established companies latching onto the global sustainability movement, ideas are generating on how Canada can accelerate what David Bowden, Cleantech advisor and strategic consultant in energy sustainability and business growth, calls the “central moral calling of the 21st century.”

“There’s no doubt some grease in the form of money can help both on the development side, then on the adoption side, and I think the government is doing some decent stuff in terms of innovation,” he said. “If the government could get better at identifying the winners and start helping the introduction, we could get the changes not only invented, but rolled out faster.”

Rebecca Melnyk is online editor of Building Strategies & Sustainability and Canadian Property Management