Canada’s Energy Future in an Age of Climate Change: Public Confidence and Institutional Foundations for Change


What if Canada developed climate change policy as if energy mattered? While this question may sound glib, Canadian climate policy from the early 1990s is most easily understood if one assumes that energy and climate imperatives had simply been disconnected.

The following chart provides a picture of four successive international commitments made by Canada’s federal government, each of which could be said to be fundamental expressions of climate policy. It plots them against the country’s actual greenhouse gas emissions performance over that time. An observer with an inclination to learn from history might wonder whether Canada has been missing something important in its policy thinking over the past thirty years. As we look out to the really important mid-century goal of the 2016 Paris Agreement1, there is an interesting symmetry in that mid-century is now approximately thirty years in the future. Might there be some useful policy lessons from the past thirty years that could be applied to policy for the next thirty? To our knowledge neither policymakers nor many analysts and advisors have sought to do this. That is our starting point.

Figure 1: Canadian Greenhouse Gas Emissions, 1990 to 2016 (MtCO2e) and Canada’s International Commitments

Source: Figure produced by Positive Energy with data from Environment and Climate Change Canada (2018b)


A few key learnings have emerged over the last thirty years. The first concerns public confidence and trust in decision-making systems. Confidence and trust have steadily declined2 over those three decades and, on its face, with good reason. Governments have often over-committed and underperformed on climate. This relates to the second learning about progress on emissions reductions. Despite much debate, as shown in the above graph, the country has achieved little on greenhouse gas emissions reductions.3 At the same time, rising social opposition to energy infrastructure projects of all sorts and lack of clarity over the future of Canada’s oil and gas industry in an age of climate change have undercut not only public but, increasingly, investor confidence. The consequence has been to compromise the viability of the country’s single largest export industry, and in some parts of the country, has compromised a pivotal attribute of energy policy in the public mind: affordability. This is the third lesson of the last thirty years: affordability, competitiveness and the investment climate need to be taken into consideration when it comes to climate policy. In short, economic imperatives matter.

With these three lessons in mind, our fundamental proposition is that the most important lesson to emerge over the last thirty years is that climate policy can only be truly effective if it is developed as if energy mattered.

This article begins to lay out how that might done, drawing on recent research and engagement at the University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy initiative.

Launched in 2015, Positive Energy’s mandate is to identify how to strengthen public confidence and trust in energy decision-making systems.4 Positive Energy’s focus for the coming three years of research and engagement is on Canada’s energy future in an age of climate change, specifically, how to strengthen confidence in public authorities making decisions about Canada’s energy future.5 Research and engagement will tackle three of the most important barriers to reconciling these two vital areas of public policy: the destructive effects of polarization on debate, public confidence and decision-making; the increasing ambiguity and confusion as to where public decision-making authority actually resides and should reside; and the models of and limits to building consensus so that concrete actions by governments (federal, provincial, territorial, municipal, Indigenous), regulators and private investors — programs, regulations, projects, new businesses — can move forward expeditiously and cost-effectively.

Several themes have emerged from Positive Energy’s research and engagement to date that will inform the work program going forward. All of the themes will be of vital interest to the energy regulatory community, by which we mean not only regulators but also policymakers who create and sustain regulatory systems and stakeholders who work within those systems. For purposes of this article, we have chosen to focus on two of the themes: language and decision-making institutions.6


A key element of the larger societal context for the energy and climate debate is the rise in polarization around many policy and political issues throughout the western world.7 In other words, polarization over energy and climate issues is far from unique. Still, energy and climate stand out due to several factors: a surfeit of scientific complexities and controversies, an extremely weighty and multi-dimensional set of economic consequences associated with both action and inaction, diverse effects on citizens and communities that are sometimes difficult to reconcile with the broader societal interest, complex questions of jurisdiction, and distinct and highly variable regional implications.

Flowing from and contributing to this polarized environment are questions of language, by which we mean terminology, vocabulary and framing.

Positive Energy’s research and engagement efforts over almost five years reveal that many thoughtful people see choice of language as a vital aspect of the debate. The scholarly literature on this topic is relatively scant, but it does underscore the important role of language, narrative and terminology in energy and climate change policy and politics.8 At the extreme, language has become not so much a means for communicating but a mechanism for either driving polarization or for avoiding actually coming to grips with matters.

Looking again through the lens of history it is interesting to reflect on the evolution of language surrounding questions of public or community influence on decisions around energy and resource projects. The term NIMBY (Not In My Backyard), although rather clever as an acronym and possibly useful as a short form, also very quickly became pejorative9 and a signal that the user was frustrated and treating community concerns dismissively. In many instances, frustration with community opposition was justified, but so, in many cases, were community concerns justified. What was needed was respectful dialogue on all sides. Language in this case was polarizing in its effect.

The successor term “social licence” originated in the mining sector and was inherently more respectful of local concerns. It has emerged in Canada as a short form for the consultation and engagement that now accompanies virtually any project. But unhelpfully, the term as commonly used has acquired an ostensible meaning — framed cleverly but unhelpfully as “governments grant permits but communities grant permission”10 — that is at odds with the foundations of representative government and generates confusion and uncertainty over who ultimately decides when it comes to a proposed energy project.

Turning specifically to the realm of climate policy, the term “clean” energy has become a commonplace, so commonplace in fact that it means whatever the user wants it to mean. For many in the forefront of the climate movement it means zero greenhouse gas emissions (for example, the 100 per cent Possible movement, which advocates for a shift to one hundred percent renewable energy). But for a local community concerned with air quality or with potential impacts on local ecosystems, “clean” can mean something quite different. For a producer or user of almost any source of energy, clean often means as clean as possible: highly efficient and with state-of-the-art pollution control and waste management systems.

For yet others, “clean” means renewable energy and specifically only wind, solar and a few others such as run of river hydro and geothermal sources. In this view, energy sources like large hydro and biomass, which are renewable under a dictionary definition but that have potentially large impacts on the landscape, don’t count.

If, how and where nuclear energy fits in the world of clean energy as a non-emitting — but not “clean” in the view of some given the issue of waste — is far from clear. It is also far from clear what “counts” as clean in the oil and gas sector — if anything at all. Are emissions reductions technologies like carbon capture clean?

Thus, some terminology such as “NIMBY” could be directly dismissive and polarizing. In the cases of social licence or clean energy or renewable energy, language could be used as a short form to facilitate conversations, what Henry Kissinger is credited as having dubbed “constructive ambiguity”. But more often, language seems to have become a way to avoid actually addressing underlying issues or allowing a user to sound progressive irrespective of whether any substantive meaning lies behind its use. If this is not directly contributing to polarization, then it is at best putting off the hard choices for another day.

The term “low carbon”, also a commonplace, has emerged as another source of both ambiguity and polarization. The objective of climate policy is of course low emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.11 But low carbon is often taken to exclude all fossil fuel energy12 regardless of the efficiency with which it is used and dismissing the possibility of emissions being mitigated and managed. It has thereby acquired a technologically deterministic quality, and thus become not only a polarizing term but also a dangerous road for policy to follow, particularly in a time of rapid, disruptive and unpredictable technological change.

All of this has built a shaky foundation for another term that emerged in the context of the Paris agreement of 2016: the “transition” to a low carbon future. At a high level this term can be understood to refer to the Paris agreement goals for mid-century. But recent Positive Energy research and engagement13 reveal that the term “transition” has certain characteristics. While it is widely used by academics, non-government organizations, companies, trade associations and governments, it has almost as many meanings as it has users. The key differences in interpretation relate to time frame, choice of fuel, choice of technology, structure of energy systems, energy production or energy use, human behaviour and social values.

“Transition” is a term that could be construed as being constructively ambiguous if it facilitates dialogue. It is a polarizing term if it is used in a way that is technologically deterministic or highly ambitious with respect to pace of change. This is particularly the case when it comes to Canada’s oil and gas sector: if the term “transition” refers to the elimination of fossil fuels — rather than the aggressive reduction of emissions — it can be polarizing and stand in the way of productive debate. Similarly, ambitious time frames raise questions about feasibility14 in political, economic, technical or social terms.

But perhaps more than anything, in Canada, “transition” seems to be a term that leads to people talking past each other. It can be taken to imply inevitability when in fact any major energy system change, whether understood as process or end state, will require enormous acts of will and determination15 on the part of policymakers and acceptance of (and, ideally, support for) some very tough choices16 by citizens and consumers. It can also lead to complacency, or what we term “dangerous optimism,”17 by masking the underlying scale of change that is called for.

The practical implications of language are, simply put, that all participants in energy and climate debates need to be constantly aware of the effect of the language they choose. Language can allow a conversation to begin or it can push people away from the table. It can lead to practical agreement or simply mask underlying disagreement and lead nowhere. It can allow political actors to claim certain credentials while masking the fact that they are really saying very little. And it can crystallize debate and lead to action or it can allow real choices to be put off for another day.18 In short, language matters.

What if Canada approached energy and climate policy as if institutional foundations were as important as technology and economics to manageable change?


The first is science and engineering, specifically that underlying technological change. Many argue that the technology to underpin a low emissions economy exists19 or, at the very least, that several decades of technological evolution have led us to the cusp of it existing. Taken to extremes, for some, “technology”, in particular information technology and “smart” systems, but also electric vehicles, wind and solar power, and other new and emerging electricity-based technologies, are essentially all that is needed to reduce emissions. And this, despite the increasingly evident risks that accompany rapid technological change (viz social acceptance or lack thereof of technologies like smart meters, autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence).

The other discipline is economics. Beginning in the early 1990s, economic modelers have regularly assessed the feasibility of targets. And while economists and models have often disagreed in their findings, the dominant question for policy has been whether targets, given certain assumptions about technology, are economically feasible.

But another lesson of the last 30 years of history in Canada is that if technological and economic feasibility are necessary conditions for change, they are far from sufficient.20 In a democracy and particularly in one coping with low and fluctuating levels of trust in21 and deference to22 expertise and authority, social acceptability and the scholarly disciplines and institutions lying behind it are determining factors at least as weighty as technology and economics.

As Canada reflects on what might drive or shape change, the country should, therefore, look beyond conventional wisdom and clichés concerning technology and economics and ask whether energy and climate policy are being framed as if people mattered. With that question in mind, Canada needs to look to whether institutions are up to the job and where decision-making responsibility should rest. Positive Energy has, therefore, made this an important area of focus for research and engagement in the coming three years. There are several obvious dimensions to consider, some of which may lead to the conclusion that the institutional architecture simply is what it is, and, therefore, is something all actors have to learn to work with. But institutions can adapt, adjust and transform over time. Indeed, many decision-making institutions have changed or tried to change over the past number of years, which opens up many avenues for constructive consideration as to how they might best evolve.

Start with the most basic institutional structure of all, which is the division of federal and provincial powers laid out in the constitution and interpreted by the courts over time. If one were setting out today to design arrangements that would facilitate an effective approach to energy and climate, it seems doubtful that Canada’s approach to federalism would be the preferred architecture. In recent years, that already difficult context has become more so as the federation becomes more fractured and regional divisions over energy and climate have grown. Nonetheless, it seems likely that for those leading energy and climate policymaking, the federal system is essentially context within which they have to work. Paying careful attention to language and other measures to attenuate polarization may well be a good place to start.

Perhaps a much bigger challenge but one that may be more tractable is the capacity of governments to articulate policy, and to plan, execute and sustain policy coherence on contested topics like energy and climate within and across electoral cycles. In an increasingly fractured and polarized polity it appears that even when coherent policy is articulated and implemented, it may well not survive a change of government. Recent years’ experience with energy and climate policy reversals and policy incoherence both within and across governments suggests that this challenge has not diminished despite (or perhaps even because of) the growth of analytical and communications tools at their disposal. It is worth asking how much of this is just the way things are, or, alternatively, whether institutional reform could ameliorate the situation.

Arguably the most important institutional change in Canada is the ascendance of Indigenous governments as key institutional actors in energy and climate decision-making.23 This relates to both their growing roles as governments in and of their own right exercising control over their territories, but also their capacity to act expertly and consistently, and to influence, engage and cooperate (or not) with actors beyond their borders. In many ways, this is a good news story, but there is much work to be done both by Indigenous communities themselves and by other institutions working with them to develop a shared understanding of respective roles and responsibilities, as well as to build capacity and establish frameworks for cooperation.

The emergence of local governments in the realm of energy and climate is also a good news story24 but is similarly fraught with potential for parochialism to overwhelm larger societal interests.25 Local governments are actors with the capacity to incorporate energy and climate into their roles as land use planners, providers or owners of local infrastructure and as influencers in decisions beyond their jurisdiction. Some of this relates to the vexed questions of “NIMBY” and social licence. Much of it, however, is new.26 And much remains to be done to define roles and responsibilities, as well as to develop the capacity to exercise local roles and responsibilities constructively within the larger context of Canada as a whole.

Many institutions outside of government such as non-government organizations, think tanks, industry associations, and trade unions have over time been both facilitators of and impediments to constructive policy. For the future, as Canada looks to overcome the malign effects of partisanship and parochialism in formal political discourse, a fruitful line of inquiry relates to how such unofficial institutions might further develop their potential to be constructive contributors to effective energy and climate policy.

In the meantime, over the past few decades, certain trends have emerged when it comes to regulatory bodies and their capacity to act. There has been, arguably, an erosion of what might be termed the regulatory compact. Regulators, as we use the term here, are bodies that operate with some measure of autonomy from politics and governments. They operate of course within legislative and policy frameworks established by political actors, but traditionally as they deal with individual applications they have functioned as deciders, as quasi-judicial actors — in essence, courts of first instance and triers of fact — whose work led to stable decisions that had broad legitimacy and provided certainty for interested parties. Looking to the future, this system faces fundamental questions about its perceived legitimacy in the eyes of affected stakeholders, and even in the eyes of governments. Perhaps just as fundamental is the question of whether regulators are deciders or merely advisors to political decision-makers. Canada needs to ask itself what new — or renewed — regulatory compact is most appropriate to the challenge of managing energy and climate policy in the twenty-first century.

Finally, Canada needs to consider the role of the courts. Typically, quasi-judicial actors such as energy regulators are expert triers of fact and the role of courts (usually courts of appeal) are guarantors of the rule of law. Courts consider whether regulators have drawn conclusions that are reasonably supported by facts, consistent with the law and the constitution and with procedures that meet standards of openness and fairness. But in some cases, courts have a significant impact on the substance of decisions. This is done inconsistently, as sometimes courts are extremely deferential and other times they impose more substantive obligations. One area where the courts have a major impact is the meaning and scope of Indigenous rights. There is both a need for and constructive potential in standing back from individual controversies to examine whether reforms are needed to the respective roles and responsibilities of the courts, regulators and policymakers as Canada works through complex and difficult energy and climate change questions.


Too much of the so-called energy and climate debate has become a shouting match where clichés, prejudices and narrow interests often outweigh considered dialogue and well understood and widely accepted decision processes. What Canada’s energy future looks like in an age of climate change is a societal question whose implications are vastly greater than energy and climate policy, but it seems clear that all the technology in the world will be for naught if the country is unable to recreate public and — increasingly — investor confidence and trust in decision systems.

Within this context, Positive Energy has outlined a program of research and engagement that addresses many of the questions posed in the foregoing sections.

The broadest challenges relate to polarization and its cousins, parochialism and partisanship, and here, solutions appear to be very elusive. The first steps clearly require forming a deeper understanding of these phenomena both with respect to public policy as a whole and more specifically respecting energy and climate. One promising area of focus centres on the question of language and the simple capacity to communicate both respectfully and effectively. Here, Positive Energy’s research agenda includes projects that aim to get a better grip on how participants in Canada’s energy and climate debate understand and use terms like “clean energy” and “transition”.

Potentially more fruitful for framing concrete solutions are questions surrounding the roles and responsibilities of decision-making institutions and the essential architecture of those institutions. For some in the energy and climate community, there appears to be a growing realization that the chief business of government is to build and sustain the foundations on which individual decisions are made. Several avenues of enquiry present themselves: how policy machinery can be strengthened; how regulatory machinery can be structured to facilitate evidence-based decisions leading to action while maintaining public accountability; and how emerging institutional actors — notably Indigenous and municipal governments — can be beneficiaries and facilitators of change.

Behind the individual controversies in the energy and climate debate lie fundamental principles such as commitment to democratically established and accountable responsible governments and to the rule of law. Building on these and other principles there is much potential through analysis and engagement to rebuild structures for civil discourse, for coming to grips with problems rather than shouting matches on twitter and for reestablishing trust in what may turn out to be an institutional architecture for the twenty-first century quite different from that which has prevailed through most of the energy and climate policy process to date. If Canada is serious about tackling its energy and climate challenges, these matters should be priorities for all governments and for Canadians as a whole.

* Michael Cleland is Senior Fellow Positive Energy at the University of Ottawa, chair of the Board of QUEST (Quality Urban Energy Systems of Tomorrow) and past chair of the board of CERI (Canadian Energy Research Institute). Monica Gattinger is Chair of Positive Energy, Director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy and Full Professor at the School of Political Studies at uOttawa. We would like to thank Positive Energy Research Team members Marisa Beck, Aimee Richard and George Vegh for their insightful comments on and support in producing this article. Any errors of fact or interpretation are ours alone.

  1.  Schleussner et al, “Science and Policy Characteristics of the Paris Agreement Temperature Goal” (2016) 6: Nature Climate Change 827.
  2.  “2017 Edelman Trust Barometer” (17 January 2017), Edelman (blog), online: <> [Edelman].
  3.  Rosenbloom et al, “Transition Experiments: Opening Up Low-Carbon Transition Pathways for Canada through Innovation and Learning” (2018) 44:4 Canadian Public Policy 368.
  4.  For more information on Positive Energy, see, online: <>.
  5.  Michael Cleland & Monica Gattinger, “Canada’s Energy Future in an Age of Climate Change: How Partisanship, Polarization and Parochialism are Eroding Public Confidence” (2019): University of Ottawa, online: <> [Canada’s Energy Future].
  6.  For treatment of all themes, see ibid.
  7.  Nik Nanos, The Age of Voter Rage (London: Eyewear Publishing, 2018).
  8.  See e.g. Daniel Rosenbloom “Framing low-carbon pathways: A discursive analysis of contending storylines surrounding the phase-out of coal-fired power in Ontario” (2018) 27: Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 129; Daniel Rosenbloom, Harris Berton & James Meadowcroft, “Framing the Sun: A Discursive Approach to Understanding Multi-dimensional Interactions within Socio-technical Transitions through the Case of Solar Electricity in Ontario, Canada” (2016) 45:6 Research Policy 1275; Rupinder Mangat, Simon Dalby & Matthew Paterson, “Divestment Discourse: War, Justice, Morality and Money” (2018) 27:2 Environmental Politics 187.
  9.  William R. Freudenburg & Susan K. Paster, “NIMBYs and LULUs: Stalking the Syndromes” (1992) 48:4 Journal of Social Issues 39.
  10.  Liberal Party of Canada, “Environmental Assessments”, online: <>.
  11.  Positive Energy has adopted the term ‘low emissions’ to ensure that our choice of language is focused on the objective rather than the means.
  12.  See “Introduction” in Horace Herring, ed, Living in a Low-Carbon Society in 2050 (Energy, Climate and the Environment Series, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) 1; See also Frank W. Geels,”Regime Resistance against Low-Carbon Transitions: Introducing Politics and Power into the Multi-Level Perspective”, Theory, Culture & Society 31:5 (2014) 21 [Geels].
  13.  Aimee Richard, “Literature Review on Understandings of the Term Transition in Canada and Beyond” (2019): University of Ottawa, Positive Energy (available upon request); Marisa Beck with Michael Cleland & Aimee Richard, “Qualitative Research Study on Canadian Decision-Makers’ Understandings of the term ‘Transition’’ [forthcoming].
  14.  See Geels, supra note 12 and Alain Gras, “The Deadlock of the Thermo-Industrial Civilization: The (Impossible?) Energy Transition in the Anthropocene” in Transitioning to a Post-Carbon Society: Degrowth, Austerity and Wellbeing (International Political Economy Series, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
  15.  Sam Fankhauser, “A practitioner’s guide to a low-carbon economy: lessons from the UK”, Climate Policy 13:3 (2013) 345 [Lessons from the UK].
  16.  Jeff Beyer, “A Climate Tale of No Tactics” (2010) 36:6 Alternatives J 38.
  17.  Canada’s Energy Future, supra note 5 at 10.
  18.  Daniel Rosenbloom, “Framing Low-carbon Pathways: A Discursive Analysis of Contending Storylines Surrounding the Phase-out of Coal-fired Power in Ontario” (2018) 27: Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 129.
  19.  Lessons from the UK, supra note 15.
  20.  Timothy Foxon, “Transition pathways for a UK low carbon Electricity future”, Energy Policy 52: (2013) 10.
  21.  Edelman, supra note 2.
  22.  See Neil Nevitte, The Decline of Deference: Canadian Value in Change in Cross National Perspective (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996) and “The Decline of Deference Revisited: Evidence after 25 Years” (Paper delivered at the Mapping and Tracking Global Value Change: A Festschrift Conference for Ronald Inglehart, University of California Irvine, 11 March 2011.
  23.  Stewart Fast, “Who Decides? Considering the Roles of Local and Indigenous Authorities in the Canadian Energy Decision-Making” (2017) University of Ottawa,Positive Energy System Under Stress-Interim Report #1.
  24.  See e.g. the work of QUEST ( with hundreds of local governments across the country.
  25.  Ibid.
  26.  Eve Bourgeois, “Literature Review on The Role of Local in Canada’s Energy Future in an Age of Climate Change: Municipal Governments and Communities” (2019): University of Ottawa, Positive Energy (available upon request). Municipal governments have typically been active providers of transport, water, sanitation and a variety of social services but except where they have been owners of local power distribution utilities they typically have had only limited roles respecting energy and limited capacity to understand or manage it in a broader sense.

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