The Role of Renewable Energy in Canada - A Political View

Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark.
— Ralph Klein

“Renewable energy is energy obtained from natural resources that can be naturally replenished or renewed within a human lifespan” [1]. Examples of renewable energy sources are solar, wind, tidal, and wave. In a country as large as Canada, access to these energy sources is abundant; however, transitioning from the current status quo proves to be difficult. This short essay will discuss the political challenges on a Federal, Provincial, and international level.

With a de-centralized distribution of power in Canada, national plans are often subject to negotiations between the federal and provincial governments. Historically, such negotiations have failed. Take for example the National Energy Program, which was instituted by Pierre Trudeau in 1980. Due to the Gulf War and the resulting oil peak, the NEP had three main objectives [2]: increase Canadian ownership of the oil industry, allow Canada to become self-sufficient producer of oil, and increase federal revenue from oil. Alberta, with the 3rd largest oil reserves in the world resented this policy as the province was not receiving the more profitable market price, as well as the fact the federal government was receiving some of the revenue [3]. The NEP was a failure, as prices collapsed in the later parts of the 1980s. The NEP contributed to the election loss of Pierre Trudeau, and his successor, Brian Mulroney cancelled the program.

Some may argue that the resentment of the 80s is of the past, but today, history is replaying itself with Justin Trudeau’s attempt to enact a National Energy Strategy. Back in the 80s it was Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed who opposed a national policy, today it’s Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall [4]. A similarity between the two provinces is their reliance on oil; if a national energy plan with a promotion on renewables, and a price on non-renewables is implemented, Alberta and Saskatchewan would be at a disadvantage. Ontario and Quebec though, would be at an advantage as they are less reliant on fossil fuels. This is a problem with a federal approach; appeasing different provinces with different resources to work on a national plan is difficult.

Even in provinces where reliance on fossil fuels is low, shifting to renewables can be a challenge. Politicians want to remain in power, and satisfying voters is their game. Even if the technology for renewable energy is available, political obstacles hinder the shift. In an effort to save her pitiful approval numbers, Canada’s least popular Premier, Kathleen Wynne, decided to cancel the latest round of green energy projects, to save consumers money and rescue her party [5][6]. Her predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, cancelled gas-fired power plants that cost Ontario residents $1billion dollars to win a Liberal minority in 2011 [7]. Shifting to renewable energy is better for the environment, but if basing your platform on that means losing an election, politicians will not implement this change.

A point of contention with implementing a national renewable energy policy is the costs are local and specific, whereas the benefits are sparse and general for fossil fuel reliant provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan. This point is ever more relevant with the election of Donald Trump, a man who believes climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese to make US manufacturing less competitive [8]. If Canada decides to implement a renewable energy policy, some industries may relocate south of the border, meaning jobs will be lost locally, and second, the net impact of reducing carbon emissions is zero, as the industry will be emitting carbon, only in a different location. Some politicians, like Brad Wall, fear this effect as trade-exposed industries are in danger if a carbon tax is implemented [9].

In conclusion, implementing a national renewable policy poses a challenge: on one hand, switching to renewables is the environmentally right thing to do; however, there are multiple political obstacles. On the federal level, the challenge is coordinating with provinces with different resource endowments (oil versus hydro). On the provincial level, the challenge is implementing policy that may increase costs to residents of the province whilst maintaining approval from the electorate. Finally, there may be no positive environmental impact globally from such policy, especially if neighbouring countries do not follow Canada’s lead.



[1] Natural Resources Canada, (2016) “About Renewable Energy”, [Online] Available: [Accessed: 26-Nov-2016]

[2] CBC Digital Archives, (1980) “Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau slaps taxes on oil with National Energy Program” [Online] Available: [Accessed: 26-Nov-2016]

[3] US Energy Information Administration, (2014) “Crude Oil Proven Reserves 2014” [Online] Available: [Accessed: 26-Nov-2016]

[4] S. McCarthy, D. Leblanc, (2016) “Liberal government’s carbon tax plan provokes anger from provinces”, Globe and Mail, [Online] Available: [Accessed: 26-Nov-2016]

[5] R. Blackwell, (2016) “Ontario Liberals put brakes on renewable-energy projects”, Globe and Mail, [Online] Available: [Accessed: 26-Nov-2016]

[6] A. Csanady, (2016) “Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s approval is so low the provincial Tories are in supermajority territory: poll”, National Post, [Online] Available: [Accessed: 26-Nov-2016]

[7] C. Gillis, (2016) “The five sins behind Kathleen Wynne’s power failure”, McLean’s, [Online] Available: [Accessed: 26-Nov-2016]

[8] L. Jacobson, (2016) “Yes, Donald Trump did call climate change a Chinese hoax”, Politifact, [Online] Available: [Accessed: 26-Nov-2016]

[9] B. Wall, (2016) “A better emissions solution than a revenue-neutral carbon tax”, Globe and Mail, [Online] Available: [Accessed: 26-Nov-2016]