Paper cut-outs used for stop-motion animation , one of many art projects at PowerShift Alberta's Art Space.
Paper cut-outs used for stop-motion animation, one of many art projects at PowerShift Alberta’s Art Space.

By Jasmine Pushak – 

The Movement 

“If it’s wrong to wreck the environment… then it’s wrong to make a profit off it,” says Kiki Wood, national director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition (CYCC). She has come to meet with members of Greenpeace Edmonton and spur a social action called PowerShift Alberta.

The youth-led initiative for climate change accountability has finally come to the heart of Canada’s fossil fuel industry. PowerShift is a part of the CYCC, in which 45 different organizations have united to take action against environmental injustices.

We gather in an old boardroom of the downtown McKenney Building, where Greenpeace members meet regularly. Eight of us sit in creaky chairs around a solid wood table the colour of honey. Signs and banners with words like “Fund Solutions Not Pollution,” and “Go Fossil Free,” are piled in one corner of the room.

The topic of conversation is certainly one of the most critical issues facing the Canadian government today: should we divest from fossil fuels? Is this even entirely possible based on our current dependencies on them? Many fossil fuel companies continue to receive subsidies from governments and public institutions; however Wood and thousands of other young Canadians believe these institutions should be investing money into sustainable energy sources instead.

The conversation turns to preparations for PowerShift’s next big event. April 1, 2016 marks the third annual “Fossil Fool’s Day” activist movement in Canada, the very first in Edmonton. The three-day youth climate conference at the University of Alberta features keynote speakers, various workshops and an interactive art space. Their goal is to unite different campaigns from across the country to craft a national narrative and raise awareness about Canada’s potential as a leader in climate change accountability.

Greenpeace Edmonton plans a brazen kick-off to the campaign at the U of A campus, specifically at the Natural Resources Engineering Facility where many oil and gas companies are affiliated and where a majority of the weekend conference will take place.

“The idea is to go to some of these lecture theatres and classrooms … and put somewhere on the door the big orange ‘X’ [the national symbol for divestment] with some facts about that company’s environmental record,” says Greenpeace member Jason Cooper. “Or something kind of cheeky like that, in keeping with the crank element of April Fool’s Day.”

Still, the activists try to avoid overly aggressive behaviour, as it’s not a successful practice for generating conversations regarding contentious issues. They realize that 2016 is a pivotal time in Canadian politics for environmental accountability, not only federally with the Liberals acknowledging the threats of climate change, but provincially as well with Alberta’s NDP introducing an official Climate Leadership Plan.

Moreover, both levels of government have recently adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) to encourage open dialogue with First Nations on issues of marginalization and environmental rights. This is just one step towards rectifying Canada’s history of systemic marginalization.

Indeed, many iconic Canadian First Nations are keynote speakers at PowerShift Alberta’s climate conference, including Caleb Behn, Tasha Spillet and Melina Laboucan-Massimo. Their experience dealing with political injustices, says PowerShift, has increased their knowledge and honed their communication skills, making First Nations critical leaders in the environmental movement.

Similarly, Canadian youth have the potential to enact a change in attitudes towards the fossil fuel industry. Focused on organizing a grassroots campaign within youth communities in Alberta, PowerShift has come to the U of A hoping to rally support for local divestment.

“Students are the future generation,” says Wood. “And universities are places of social change.”

Fossil Fools

Although the Fossil Fool’s Day campaign has been successfully running in Canada for three years, it would truly benefit from a university actually agreeing to cede funds to fossil fuel companies.

“That would make a really big splash,” says Wood, as no Canadian university has yet made such a decision. “Not only does it seek to affect the bottom line by actually taking money away from the industry, but [it] shows that public institutions don’t believe fossil fuel companies have the social licence to operate in the way that they do.”

A social licence to operate corresponds with ongoing public acceptance. Fossil fuel companies may lose acceptance from the communities in which they operate when various concerns are raised, such as health problems, pollution, environmental degradation and impacts to the quality of life.

For example, Eleanor Stephenson and Karena Shaw examine the issues with British Columbia’s shale gas development in their 2013 article, “A Dilemma of Abundance: Governance Challenges of Reconciling Shale Gas Development and Climate Change Mitigation.” They find that the academia is divided when it comes to the perceived benefits and detriments of shale gas development.

“While politicians label natural gas as a ‘clean energy source,’ scientific uncertainty about the climate impacts of unconventional gas development remains, posing both technical and governance challenges,” say Stephenson and Shaw.

They link these challenges to the gap in scientific research of climate impacts, the lack of strict government regulation on reducing emissions, and the fact that accelerated development of fossil fuels is simply incompatible with global aspirations of curbing climate change.

As such, they suggest, “situating shale gas within an energy system transformation,” so it may displace coal without being made a primary energy source. Although shale gas is currently considered to be less carbon intensive, Stephenson and Shaw predict this perspective will change within the next few decades—especially if Canada is now to commit to the 2015 Paris Agreement of limiting global warming to less than two degrees Celsius.

“Under the two degree scenario, by 2025 our energy system as a whole would reach an average carbon intensity lower than the average of natural gas, at which time it will be a ‘high carbon’ fuel relative to the desired average,” they say.

Yet transitioning away from fossil fuels is a challenge with many obstacles, including Canada’s economic and energy dependency on fossil fuels. Alberta in particular is likely to have a difficult time in this transition. According to Alberta Energy, in August 2015 about 82 per cent of Alberta’s electricity was generated from coal and natural gas. In addition, a 2013 government report on economic results noted Alberta’s energy industry contributed approximately $82.9 billion to the province’s GDP.

With British Columbia’s abundant reserves of shale gas and Alberta’s vast supplies of crude oil, Canada’s decision on continued investment in fossil fuels will indeed be a difficult one to make. In fact, Stephenson and Shaw suggest that challenges in governance are the biggest threats to climate change mitigation in Canada. Specifically, they note treaties such as NAFTA through which fossil fuel companies can easily challenge any moratoria against them.

“The challenge of mitigating climate in an era of [fossil fuel development] points to the need for a different kind of state,” they say, “one that is capable of judicious market intervention, long-term planning for energy system development with consideration for environmental sustainability, and enhanced inter-jurisdictional cooperation.”

Despite the lack of government support in Canada, several organizations around the world have committed to divestment from fossil fuels. Perhaps the most notable organization to openly choose divestment is the Rockefeller Family Fund, an organization that initially earned its fortune from oil.

Similarly, PowerShift Alberta acknowledges the need to invest in renewable and efficient energy technology. As such, their Fossil Fool’s day events include a focus not only on divesting from fossil fuels, but also on building sustainable communities and creating green jobs.

PowerShift: A Youth Climate Conference

The sun shines brightly in a clear blue sky and a strong wind whips my hair about my face as I walk towards the U of A’s Natural Resources Engineering Facility, where PowerShift Alberta is in the midst of their youth climate conference. It seems the perfect day to be talking about renewable energy.

There are several different workshops running simultaneously, and I have difficulty choosing which ones to attend.

Small signs of construction paper taped to the walls help me find the lecture theatre where the documentary, “Fractured Land” is being shown. The movie’s star, Caleb Behn, is one of PowerShift’s keynote speakers. Kiki Wood is there to tell us that he is flying in as we watch the movie.

The documentary covers the dialectic of being an environmentalist and living amidst shale gas development. Behn hails from northeast British Columbia, treaty eight territory, where fossil fuels have had a drastic impact on his people. For instance, Behn was born with a birth defect, requiring multiple surgeries to fix the deformation on his face. Moreover, he was taught as a young boy to carefully search the organs of hunted animals, as they are increasingly found riddled with cancerous tumours. Yet despite these negative impacts, the people of Behn’s tribe fear living in poverty and so accept employment from fossil fuel companies. As such, Behn was inspired to become a lawyer to help his people from inside the system.

“In this country, the only people to talk to judges are lawyers,” says Behn in the documentary. “I want to speak truth to power.”

Before Behn arrives, Dana Tizya-Tramm speaks to the young lawyer’s reputation. Another one of the night’s keynote speakers, Tizya-Tramm had also recently flown into Edmonton, travelling from as far as Old Crow, Yukon, an Aboriginal community on the border of the Arctic Circle.

“He has his law degree, and he’s always been a warrior. He’s always had that warrior spirit,” he says. “Today, the reality for First Nations is that this is what our warriors look like. Caleb is the perfect example of the bridge between Aboriginal ways of knowing and western best practices.”

The next trail of paper signs leads me to a classroom where Shanthu Mano and Godo Stoyke are hosting a workshop called, “Building Sustainable Communities.” People sit in a circle of chairs at the centre of the room, talking quietly amongst themselves before the workshop begins. Many of us are here because the communities we live in have done little in the way of sustainability.

Mano and Stoyke own and operate a business called Carbon Busters Homes. The company seeks to improve the energy efficiency of houses at the designer stage using carbon neutral tactics. They have become experts in this field after living for 22 years in a self-designed, off-grid solo home in the middle of the forest. Their company has also worked for a number of years improving energy efficiency in schools across North America.

“The next phase for Godo and myself is we are designing an integrated sustainable community,” says Mano. “It’s zero carbon so that means there’s no furnace, oil or natural gas in any of our buildings.”\

Carbon Busters is currently working with the City of Edmonton to find the land for their project within the city’s limits. Mano hopes to integrate the community with a low-carbon transportation model, wastewater treatment without chemicals, conservation areas, renewable energy and even an economic revenue model that includes industrial-type green jobs.

Stoyke asks if we know the number one source of green energy in Canada. Many of us expect hydro, wind or solar to be the answer. But no, he says, it’s actually the negawatt.

“A negawatt,” he says, “is basically a watt that you don’t consume but replace with conservation and efficiency. We can replace up to 75% of our energy use with efficiency. That’s way more than any other source.”

Stoyke uses coffee as an example. A pot of coffee can be kept warm by being placed on a hot plate, but this requires electricity. The same goal can be achieved by placing the coffee in a thermos, where no extra energy is required.

Energy efficiency is both cheap and effective, and Stoyke believes that it should be pushed in Alberta, the only province in Canada whose energy consumption rate is rising.

He says, “If we can change Alberta, we can change the country.”

A Call to Action

Finally, PowerShift Alberta wraps up Saturday night with four First Nations keynote speakers, including Tasha Spillet, Dana Tizya-Tramm, Caleb Behn and Melina Laboucan-Massimo. We meet in the University’s Fine Arts Building, where a lecture theatre is reserved for us. The room seems to shrink as people continue to fill empty seats and eventually the room is packed.

Each speaker is preceded by a group of First Nation men singing a traditional song. The beating of their drums and the fluctuation of their voices evoke a sense of power and unity within the room. The keynote speeches are delivered with strong emotions, as each speaker has personal experiences with oppression and injustice in Canada. Though their stories are unique to them, they all share the same indigenous narrative. This narrative, they stress, is an important aspect of the environmental movement in Canada.

“As youth, you need to think about where you can make the biggest impact,” says Behn. “You’ve got to figure out how to maintain spirit when the empirical system doesn’t allow for it.”

Indeed, the speakers all agree that being an environmental activist can be extremely strenuous, especially when it feels like there is no progress being made. For instance, no university has agreed to divest from fossil fuels, despite years of campaigning in Canada.

“The challenge [in Alberta] is we don’t have a whole lot of options,” says Dr. Shahidul Islam, economics professor at MacEwan University. “Alberta at this time… it’s very hard to compete renewable energy with fossil fuels. Oil price is $35 a barrel now and gas prices are low.”

While the renewable energy sector in Alberta is slowly growing, Dr. Islam says ultimately the final decision to divest entirely from fossil fuels will be decided by the global market.

“The renewable sector is relatively stable compared to the fossil fuel sector, so if the global gas price goes up then the renewable will be profitable,” he says. “I think eventually what’s going to happen is the non-renewable sector will decline and the renewables will increase. So those who will be the upfront investors in renewables probably will be the ones who win. It’s not just here in Alberta, it’s global.”

A known critique of the divestment campaign is that it will stigmatize fossil fuel companies who are trying to uphold a social licence to operate. In their 2015 article “Fossil Fuel Divestment: Reviewing Arguments, Implications and Policy Opportunities,” Justin Ritchie and Hadi Dowlatabadi also critique the divestment campaign.

“While many divestment commitments have been announced, most have yet to actually reallocate investment capital,” they write. “For large investors bound under fiduciary law, choosing to entirely divest from fossil energy companies is difficult due to both the composition of contemporary financial products and the structure of the economy.”

Still, there is argument enough for divestment. For instance, Ritchie and Dowlatabadi discuss the “carbon bubble” scenario, in which a budget is placed on fossil fuel extraction and development so as to limit potential financial loss.

“A carbon bubble may burst causing stocks to lose value if fossil fuel reserves become too expensive to extract because of climate policies or market conditions,” they say. “The reasons for a potential carbon bubble vary, from demand reductions, efficiency or diffusion of renewable energy sources, to carbon pricing schemes such as a carbon tax or cap-and-trade.”

This is where Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan steps in. The plan, first introduced in 2015, has four main areas for improvement: ending coal pollution, carbon pricing, capping oil sands emissions and reducing methane emissions.

While it will take time and money for these plans to be realized, Alberta is taking a step in the right direction in regards to climate accountability, leading our country to do the same.

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