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Winnipeg Free Press: A chance to capitalize on disruptive change

August 2, 2017 — 

The following is an op-ed that originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on Aug. 2, 2017 from Nazim Cicek, a professor and associate head of the department of biosystems engineering at the University of Manitoba.

“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that, it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” This from Rahm Emanuel, the then chief-of-staff for the newly elected U.S. president Barack Obama, on the 2008 financial crisis that threatened the global economy.

As the signatures on the Paris agreement would attest, there is no more pressing global crisis than climate change. So as Manitobans, we have a clear choice: either feel indifferent/paralyzed about the enormous challenge, or see this as an opportunity for positive change.

We are living in perfect times to realize the potential of disruptive change and the consequences of leading it or being left behind. Take the electric car as an example. Elon Musk was still in graduate school in 1996 when GM released its first mass-produced electric vehicle, the EV1, which it discontinued by 2002. Fast forward 20 years and Tesla (founded in 2003) has matched GM in market value this year, despite selling only a tiny fraction of its electric vehicles compared to vehicles sold by GM worldwide.

Consider how we consume knowledge through the internet versus printed materials. Can there be any doubt that information technologies have been to the 21st century what the Gutenberg printing press was to the previous five centuries?

Ask taxi drivers about their feelings on the ride-sharing economy and Uber.

Let’s shift our focus to Manitoba. Where do we currently stack up in terms of energy and emissions? We have many things to be proud of: Manitoba is ranked No. 1 in Canada for energy-efficiency programs with Power Smart and building code improvements saving 575 megawatts, and 1.35 megatonnes of GHGs (equal to 250,000 cars off the road).

Manitoba has still the lowest electricity rates in Canada, opening the door to wide-scale electrification of transportation. It is home to North America’s largest transit-bus and motor coach manufacturer with industry-leading products that include battery-electric and electric-trolley propulsion systems. It is a Canadian leader in geothermal heat pumps, with 11,000 installations as of 2012. And thanks largely to Hydro and wind developments, Manitoba boasts a 100 per cent renewable electricity grid, which very few other jurisdictions can claim.

But Manitoba also imports all of its gasoline and diesel (more than $2 billion a year) for current transportation needs, and all of its natural gas and heating oil for current commercial and residential heating and manufacturing.

Manitoba does not effectively utilize its waste biomass and landfill biogas as an energy source and has lagged behind solar energy developments, electric vehicle uptake, active and public transportation, residential power storage and small-scale, distributed energy generation. Overall, investment in sustainable energy infrastructure, other than large hydro and transmission lines, has been lacking.

So here’s to opportunity knocking on our door: we can either delay action through fear of well-established economic vehicles such as a carbon tax, an emissions cap and trade, or targeted government incentives (all of which are widely used in different countries or sub-regions of the world), or be energized by the opportunity of leading a disruptive change toward long-term prosperity and sustainability. By transforming parts of our society still heavily dependent on fossil fuels (primarily transportation and heating), we can become the most sustainable jurisdiction not just in North America, but worldwide.

As long as we maintain a fully renewable electricity generation portfolio (with ample unused capacity in wind, solar, biomass and hydro available for the future), simply transitioning from fossil fuels to electricity and encouraging energy conservation will get us there.

Any economist will tell you that supply and demand will show us the way. Make fossil fuels and GHG emission sources more expensive and use the proceeds to drive down costs on sustainable alternatives. The majority of us agree that proceeds from tobacco, alcohol and gambling levies should be used to alleviate their ill effects on society through expenditures in health care, addictions management and enforcement. Carbon is a societal addiction of the industrial age and, knowing my fellow Manitobans, I have no doubt that we will respond to price signals quickly.

Many of the projected problems associated with global warming (extreme weather events, regional water and food issues, environmental mass-migration, spread of tropical diseases to northern regions, etc.) will primarily affect younger generations. Let’s use their energy, openness to change and innovative ideas to seize this moment.

A vision of a sustainable future, and the opportunity to live in a province that could be an example to the world, will do more to retain them here than any other incentive. I am confident they will not let this crisis go to waste, and will prefer surfing the wave of disruptive change rather than getting crushed by it.

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