Directing Disruption: A new approach to climate policy

Author: David B. Layzell


Publish Date: Tuesday, February 27, 2018


It is time for Canada to take a new approach to climate policy making if we want to achieve our shared environmental and economic goals.

As a nation, we have failed to meet two international climate targets: the Kyoto Accord in 1997 and the Copenhagen commitment in 2009. Canada’s 2015 Paris commitments promise annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions that are 1 ½ to two times greater than the previous two unsuccessful targets.

These reductions are associated with a promised 30-per-cent decrease in 2005 levels of GHG emissions by 2030, and an approximate 80-per-cent cut by 2050. Canada needs to achieve these targets while continuing to grow its population and economy.

Policy tools like carbon pricing, fuel standards and clean energy incentives may move us in the right direction, but they are only capable of achieving incremental change. Realizing the Paris commitments will require transformational – even disruptive – changes in the systems we use to produce fuels and electricity, and in how we live, move around, feed ourselves and interact with others.

In a democratic society, such transformative changes require broad, public acceptance and demand. The political discourse across Canada over the last 20 years – and even today – clearly shows that the climate change and mitigation ‘driver’ falls short of achieving this requirement. Canadians require other, more tangible reasons to transform human systems. We don’t have to look far to identify other forces for disruptive change.

Take our personal mobility system as an example. In addition to the GHG emissions problem, vehicle accidents kill or seriously injure over 12,000 Canadians each year and cost society many tens of billions of dollars. Air pollution from vehicles shortens the lives of many in our cities. Congestion reduces the productivity of the workforce and demands massive infrastructure spending. Cars are also costly, and we use them only about four per cent of the time. For the other 96 per cent, they are parked on the most expensive land in Canada. People may very well make better use of our personal mobility dollars, and that precious land, if we had an acceptable alternative.

The world’s largest companies recognize these opportunities and are developing technologies, business models and social innovations they expect to disrupt global mobility systems within the next decade. These innovations include autonomous vehicles, battery electric or hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, car sharing and mobility-as-a-service.

How these technologies are deployed will determine which problems are addressed, which new problems arise and which problems are made worse.

 For example, autonomous vehicle technologies could easily worsen the environmental footprint of personal mobility by enhancing demand, reducing vehicle occupancy loads, encouraging urban sprawl, stimulating fuel use and increasing congestion. However, policies to encourage the convergence of autonomous, shared and electric vehicles could lower the cost of personal mobility, improve vehicle efficiency, replace parking lots and garages with parks and walkable communities, shorten commuting distances and reduce both congestion and GHG emissions.

While GHG emission reduction may not be the primary driver for systems change, creative policies can direct disruptive forces to achieve much-needed systems change.

Only by understanding the socio-economic and environmental implications of these innovations for various regions of Canada can policy makers develop new policy tools, or ‘levers,’ that can be used to encourage, discourage, nudge or direct these innovations in ways that will address societal goals, including but not limited to, climate change mitigation. Disruption is coming; let’s harness it to maximize benefits.

Policy thinking must move from hindsight to foresight. It must be informed by independent, evidence-based analysis and modelling capable of exploring a wide range of deployment scenarios, from a diverse range of perspectives. Ultimately, this is about building Canada’s capacity to make decisions about how to address the great, evolving, interrelated challenges of our time – based on insight and evidence, rather than on slogans and politics.

There are steps we can take now to start putting this capacity in place (our new report offers several recommendations). With the right information and policy tools, Canada can begin directing disruptions to achieve society’s long-term goals. This is how Canada can meet its Paris climate commitments, while enhancing economic prosperity, social cohesion and improving quality of life for future generations.

David B. Layzell is Professor and Director of the Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research (CESAR) Initiative at the University of Calgary. Louis Beaumier is the Executive Director of the Institut de l’énergie Trottier (IET) at Polytechnique Montreal. Their new report, “Change Ahead,” was initiated by the Ivey Foundation and is available at:

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