The Great Lakes Region provides the backbone for an $8 trillion regional economy that would one of the largest in the world if it stood alone as a country. At the same time, the Great Lakes’ ecosystem faces an increasing number of environmental pressures, including pollution, climate change, invasive species, and habitat destruction.

Taking these factors into account, from June 24-27, the Council of the Great Lakes Region is presenting its annual conference in partnership with the Toronto Region Board of Trade.

The Great Lakes Sustainable Growth Forum is geared toward developing the context for creating the first sustainable region in North America and the world. It’s an audacious goal but one that the forum organizers believe is possible.

The event provides an ideal venue for leaders from the region to share insights about how to simultaneously grow the region’s economy, improve the well-being and prosperity of individuals living in the region, and protect the environment for generations to come.

The annual conference, launched in 2015, has become a leading event to gather business, government, academic, and nonprofit leaders to come together and discuss the most pressing socioeconomic and environmental challenges facing the region.

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Ontario Premier Doug Ford discussed strategic investments and procurement agreements to support the Great Lakes economy on both sides of the border, with an emphasis on expanding the electric vehicle supply chain and providing energy security. “Ontario is a leader in nuclear energy and we’re investing in its expansion to bring safe, reliable and affordable energy to families and businesses in Ontario for generations to come. As we build out our grid, we’ll continue to share this clean energy advantage with our U.S. neighbours,” said Ford. “Whether it’s the energy sector, automobile, agriculture, or other industries, we have so many opportunities to leverage geographical ties in our shared Great Lakes to drive economic growth.”

A fireside chat on how a renewed U.S.-Canada partnership provided some insights into how to provide leadership in the Great Lakes Region.

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Former broadcaster Tom Clark, Consul General in New York for the Canadian Government, discussed changing trends in the economy. “We are at an inflection point of history right now. One thing about being about an inflection point is that you don’t know it at the time. That effects everything we do in terms of trade and policy,” said Clark.

Baxter Hunt, Consul General in Toronto for the U.S. Government, agreed, noting that there is a greater appreciation for what Canada brings to the U.S. with regard to issues such as critical minerals, the growth in EV production and the importance of meeting climate goals and being competitive internationally.

David Paterson, Ontario’s representative in Washington for the Ontario Government, pointed out that “Governments don’t set up trade. It’s businesses that do trade,” emphasizing  the role of businesses in the trade relationship and encouraging companies to be active participants of the economic conversations. “The shift to EV is ongoing and we see transformation of the steelmaking companies and other amazing changes in and around this important watershed.”

The delegates outlined how both governments are putting hundreds of millions of dollars into protecting this ecosystem: combatting toxic algae, working with Indigenous communities on resource protection, and also cooperating on wildfire management.

Clark advised there are four key areas required for focus in this new economy: “You need land, talent, energy and water. You can’t run a facility without water.” Hunt also emphasized the importance of sufficient energy production to power a growing number of AI data centres.

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Sustainable Infrastructure: Building back better and delivering long-term ESG benefits

What elements are required to build and maintain reliable and robust (sustainable) infrastructure in all its forms over its life cycle that considers our changing climate and meets the environmental, social and economic needs the public and private sector within our Great Lakes economic and social region?

This was the question provided to kick off the sustainable infrastructure panel. The panelists tackled the question in three themes: Public policy, finance and procurement; codes, standards and best practices; and, corporate perspectives.

Peter Johnson, director of Sustainable Finance at Scotiabank Global Banking and Markets discussed the evolution of traditional finance policies into those that calculate environmental attributes.

“Green Bond was very novel when it was introduced in Ontario and is an example of how the government can take leadership and de-risk, in order to initiate the first green bond,” said Johnson, pointing out that there are now 14 green bonds worth $19 billion. “These proceeds have gone into building a lot of infrastructure in Ontario. The Canadian government is also supporting energy infrastructure and other green initiatives.”

Anthony Kane, president and CEO of the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure, discussed how raising codes and standards to provide minimum requirements helps leaders to pave the way. For example, programs such as LEED and the Envision framework provide incentives through rating systems and awards that reward sustainable development.

K.N. Gunalan, senior vice president of AECOM, said that the sacred vow taken as engineers makes them responsible for educating clients to make them aware of all the options. “Many programs are based on election cycles,” said Gunalan. “But we need to challenge traditional ways of doing things.”

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Scott MacKenzie, director of Corporate & External Affairs with Toyota Motor Corporation of Canada discussed how innovative options such as hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are helping to redefine the industry, but that the standardized codes aren’t available yet or aren’t mature enough yet. “This summer we’ll be mixing hydrogen with natural gas at Cambridge plant and the permitting process for that was lengthy. We can’t have codes and standards holding innovation back.”

MacKenzie also shared some of the key environmental commitments Toyota has made, including the goal to decarbonize by 2050 and to be carbon neutral. Gunalan added that AECOM has set ambitious net zero initiatives and a corporate policy to be more aware of carbon footprints.

“The government can set an expectation, but industry-developed tools are needed for execution and these tools should be adaptable,” said Kane.

For further information on the GLSGF, visit: https://councilgreatlakesregion.org/great-lakes-sustainable-growth-forum/

Featured image: View of Toronto skyline, financial district, CN tower and the waterfront. Point view from the ferry that goes to Toronto islands. A propeller plane is preparing for landing in Billy Bishop airport (YTZ). Credit: Getty Images.

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