The concept of a green economy, led by green budgets from governments, has been around for several decades but this year’s budget may be the first time that our federal government has explicitly promised that green initiatives, or at least clean energy and green technology spending, would be the lead items in a federal budget.
On March 28, Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, released Budget 2023—A Made-in-Canada Plan: Strong Middle Class, Affordable Economy, Healthy Future, featuring historic investment to support the clean economy.
Later that evening, Freeland told Vassy Kapelos, host of the CTV show Power Play, that clean energy and green technology may not have been the big‑ticket items of the 2023 federal budget if it weren’t for the need to compete with infrastructure spending in the United States.
Two big-ticket criticisms arise.
First, a country cannot be a leader in clean energy and green technology if all the country is doing is following the lead set by another, in this case the United States. It’s the Avis syndrome. Avis used to strive to be the number two car rental company in the world. Avis used not to be a very good car rental company. It was only after it adopted the slogan “We Try Harder” — and the appropriate policies to support the slogan — that it went from being a not so good second best to being up with the best. This is a critical time for Canada to be a leader in the green economy, making the most of our unique offerings. The 2023 budget, and the Finance Minister’s comment, suggests we are still stuck in second gear.
Second, clean energy and green technology are necessary parts of a green economy but do not by themselves make a green economy. The 2023 federal budget virtually ignores green buildings, green communities, green chemistry, greening of food production systems, and so much more. It is as if Canada is so focussed on greening of our existing structures and operations that is has lost sight of the fact that reducing the environmental footprint of our society and people means doing almost everything in new and better ways rather than just tinkering with the old ways.
Drilling down into the 2023 Federal Budget illustrates the need for cost-effective fundamental change rather than expensive fiddling at the margins.
For instance, the Budget promises a Grocery Rebate for low income Canadians, but rather than just throwing money to low income Canadians in what will almost certainly be an ineffective effort to keep them happy, why did the government not provide a temporary subsidy to Canadian-produced food products, thereby helping low-income Canadians and Canadian producers at the same time. Reducing food imports is certainly an important part of reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions and reducing our reliance on offshore food production and processing.
A further promise is “to build a clean electrical grid that connects Canadians from coast‑to‑coast‑to‑coast, protects our environment, and delivers cleaner, more affordable electricity to Canadians and Canadian businesses.” One suspects that Minister Freeland does not know that electricity does not travel very well and that moving large quantities of electricity across a country as large as Canada may not pan out well in terms of amounts lost along the way. Distributed generation, that is generating power from clean sources close to the point at which it is used, may be a better way to go. A cross-Canada grid may actually make the electricity used in Ontario less clean because it could introduce more fossil-generated electricity to the provincial grid than is presently there.
In addition, Minister Freeland says in her Budget speech that “Canada has free trade deals with countries that represent two‑thirds of global economy. We are going to make Canada a reliable supplier of clean energy to the world, and, from critical minerals to electric vehicles, we are going to ensure that Canadian workers mine, and process, and build, and sell the goods and the resources that our allies need.” The cleanest of “clean energy” is renewable electricity but electricity cannot be exported in any significant quantity. One suspects that by “clean energy” Minister Freeland means petroleum-based fuels, the stuff that the petroleum industry calls “clean oil” — an oxymoron if ever there was one.
Critical minerals have a role in battery and other technology at the present time but by the time Canada gets its critical mineral mines going there is a good chance that other cleaner technologies for batteries and electronics will have been developed. Making “critical minerals” part of Canada’s economic development strategy runs the risk that, just as in the past, Canada gets all the resulting pollution from the mining and processing activity while our customers in other countries reap the environmental and economic benefits.
How can we do better?
Our federal politicians need to develop an integrated green economic strategy that does more than contain some aspects of greening while the rest of the economy chugs along in its dirty old ways. Our federal bureaucrats need to learn what is really meant by a green economy and a green budget. They need to engage the tools necessary to ensure that society implements strategies and projects that truly benefit the economy, the environment, and society. It is called sustainable development and there are countries, including some of our major trade partners, that are way ahead of Canada in implementing a sustainable green economy.
The global law firm of Norton Rose Fulbright has a useful summary of the European Union’s “Green Deal” worth reading here.
For further coverage on Canada’s federal budget, click here.
Colin Isaacs is a chemist with practical experience in administration, municipal council, the Ontario Legislature, a major environmental group, and, for the past three decades, as an adviser to business and government. He is one of the pioneers in promoting the concept of sustainable development for business in Canada and has written extensively on the topic in the popular press and for environment and business platforms.
Featured image credit: Getty Images.