Like never before, providers of materials essential to society are under pressure to accept and lead change. Finding inspiration in this dynamic setting means seeking out ideas that can survive in the real world. Stewart Muir looks at some of the ways that people – especially those who work in natural resource fields – are adapting.
10 calls to action for the rest of 2020
Here we are in June 2020: a delicate moment with both a global pandemic and spreading unrest in the United States. How does a small economy like Canada's survive, and thrive, when faced with not only this complex world, but also a population that is eager for changes in how we live, travel and consume? I have never experienced a year so unpredictable as the current one, yet somehow the shadows of uncertainty are casting into relief a number of trends and themes that I've been tracking for some time now.
Midway through 2020, most of what I see developing is broadly positive, provided we are prepared to commit to working toward the best outcomes. Here's my list. (I hope you'll feel free to drop me a line if you have anything to add.)
- Articulate a future that shows an understanding of society’s expectations. We often hear about the urgent need to transition away from extractive forms of sourcing necessary physical inputs, only to discover that the solutions available to make this transition require more (sometimes a lot more) work than anyone expected, and may not even be possible using existing technologies. Retreating to oppositional camps in the face of the resulting conflict and disappointment doesn't get us any closer to satisfying the yearning for progress. Yes, we do need change, but it needs to be smooth and rational in nature. More people today are talking about ways to escape the positionalities and polarizations, and that's a good thing.
- Apply the Canadian brand to growth opportunities, emphasizing our strengths and successful prioritization of national needs. Canada excels in the energy sector. Its oil and gas industry is struggling, even though it remains the demonstrably best option for addressing societal priorities. Rather than give up after years of frustration, it's time to become more creative and vivid in telling the story of Canadian success, for example by helping millennials to see the possibilities for innovation, growth and change. The limitations and imperfections of today should not be allowed to cancel out the incredible possibilities of the future.
- Diversify in fresh ways. Change means evolution, not just revolution. By focusing on the latter, those thirsting for rapid change sometimes overlook how our traditional industries are driving new solutions. A great example came this week, when it wasn't a "clean tech" guru who wrote a much talked-about article on the need to diversify into hydrogen, renewable jet fuel and carbon fibre: it was the CEO of a company (Suncor) that is a pillar of the Canada's energy sector. If successful at scale, some of these technologies have the potential to multiply the scale of Canadian resource production, without increasing greenhouse emissions. Real change is happening, and leading-edge executives are taking full ownership of what many of their predecessors felt little obligation to acknowledge. Imagine this becoming a signature move for Canadian natural resources – that would be a change worth attaining.
- Do more of what we're best at. Today (June 3, 2020) is the first day on the job for new Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem. Last summer, Resource Works had the chance to hear Mr. Macklem's ideas in person in another context, and it was a refreshing experience. He advised Canadians to be proactive in aligning to ESG standards and effectively communicating the results of this alignment, with the goal of making Canadian resource products the global choice. In addition, we're seeing plenty of evidence that critical minerals like uranium provide opportunities to show our unique combination of geoscience and engineering skills, Indigenous economic participation, safe transportation, and persistent international market diversification. We've also become really good at agrifoods like plant proteins that are the result of intensive science and applied technology. Aquaculture is another industry in which we excel and which could be tripled in scale, at least according to research led by Dominic Barton before he took on his current role as Ambassador to China. And as more countries seek energy systems based on renewables and gas, once again our critical minerals along with steelmaking coal are part of the solution, supported by some of the cleanest LNG available anywhere in the world. Perhaps too shy when it comes to declaring its strengths, Canada has often been slow to recognize and capitalize on the power that stems from its natural resources, and see the world through this lens.
- Win for Canada a reasonable share of the $1.5 trillion in private equity that is poised for investment decisions globally. Whether it was the transcontinental railroads of the 19th century, or pipeline projects today, Canada has always relied on foreign investment to build its national capacity. If there is one thing that economic analysts agree on, it is that perceptions of Canada’s reputation as a place to invest have been considerably bruised in recent years. Even without that factor, there would likely continue to be a dearth of domestic capital for infrastructure and technical products in clean tech. Yet there is plenty of money in the world for the kind of priorities that come naturally to us. We need to find ways to combine real, existing strengths in order to exert a more magnetic pull on that investment.
- Spread word about the endless possibilities of energy. The newly completed carbon trunk line in Alberta supplements earlier developments in Saskatchewan in carbon capture and storage. International players are coming to Canada to get the technology they need for their own carbon capture projects. Meanwhile, LNG in British Columbia that was already on track to reduce global emissions will become greener still under plans to electrify more coastal LNG plants. Tiff Macklem reminded us last summer of the potential to electrify the oil sands, capturing by doing so huge emissions reductions. The possibilities are endless, and by arguing about the wrong things we have a tendency to lose sight of this.
- Win-win solutions aren't easy. Affordability, accessibility and reliability are factors that the public often isn't told about when tantalizing new ideas in energy are talked about. Authentic solutions must also be practical. Too much hype is a problem if it results in solutions falling short of expectations.
- Geopolitics matters. The elephant in the room for Canada right now is China’s place in our economy. Let's not forget that one reason it's a prominent one is because, over many years, we have made it so by successfully seeking trade diversification. Waves of trade missions to China (and all around Asia), the opening of trade offices, tangible investment decisions – all of these have led to a tight relationship between the two nations, matched by burgeoning trade. China's moves in Hong Kong add a dangerous element, particularly for countries like Canada that have strong ties to the former colony because of historic immigration and shared roots in the Commonwealth. And it's easy to overlook the fact that our neighbour to the north is Russia, a nation that is quite okay with the idea of absorbing any market share, especially for valuable strategic commodities like oil and gas, that Canada is willing to give up. (This recent article is worth a look to understand why this is so.) Decisions that Canada makes on the domestic scene must be seen in the context of larger international trends. If we leave that factor out of the calculus, we cannot expect to be too successful in maintaining our revenue sources, and that does have an impact on our standing in the international order and, ultimately, our way of life.
- Ensure all future moves toward greater prosperity include the Indigenous peoples of Canada. Whether by vigorously pursuing goals like 5% of federal government procurement through Indigenous companies, clean water on reserves, or simply ensuring that governance systems of communities are healthy, Canada will be much stronger in future if long-term barriers are dealt with once and for all.
- Measure what is being done to green the economy, and do more of the things that are working. Linking efficiency with emissions reduction would create a positive thrust to decarbonization measures, so that they are not experienced by a sizeable share of the population as a punitive threat to investment and jobs. That they are often perceived this way now may be accounted for by the fact that the technical drivers of the clean agenda are often conflated (whether fairly or unfairly) with the blunt instruments of project opposition movements, civil disobedience, black-and-white divestment campaigns, economic blockades and international demarketing campaigns aimed at achieving an outcome even if doing so means besmirching Canada's reputation. It will take deliberate actions to build trust so that common interests can be undertaken that benefit all, and we are not driven toward untested measures that seek to “fix” the economy, when the true solutions lie elsewhere.
Viewing all of these factors, it is starting to become clear that even amid the current societal uncertainty, industry and professional leaders have a fresh chance to articulate a refined vision of how progress can be made toward a more harmonious natural resources strategy. In coming weeks, I look forward to continuing to examine this opportunity in ways that will bring practitioners together in common cause.
Stewart Muir is executive director of the Resource Works Society. He can be contacted at [email protected]