Might there be a future after oil

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As the Gallant government in New Brunswick laudably attempts to enshrine renewable energy as a way of policy, if not exactly life, in the province, a new study illustrates just how economically efficacious planetary survival is becoming in jurisdictions around the world.

Forget, for the moment, the nauseating push-me-pull-you debate over petroleum resources. Consider, instead, a report (brought to my attention by my good friend Yves Gagnon, P.Eng., D.Sc., and professor of engineering at Université de Moncton) from the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Its annual number concludes that this segment of the sector “employed 7.7 million people, directly or indirectly, around the world in 2014 (excluding large hydropower). This is an 18 per cent increase from the number reported the previous year. In addition, IRENA conducted the first-ever global estimate of large hydropower employment, showing approximately 1.5 million direct jobs in the sector.”

What’s more, “The 10 countries with the largest renewable energy employment were China, Brazil, the United States, India, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, France, Bangladesh and Colombia. . .The solar PV industry is the largest renewable energy employer worldwide with 2.5 million jobs, followed by liquid biofuels with 1.8 million jobs, and wind power, which surpassed 1 million jobs for the first time. The employment increase extends across the renewable energy spectrum with solar, wind, biofuels, biomass, biogas and small hydropower all seeing increases in employment.”

What this should tell us is that there is a good, clean, profitable life beyond fossil fuel; and that only a pervasive failure of public imagination keeps us tethered to a petro-past (of course, it is entirely possible and probably necessary to stand before history as reluctant hypocrites, paradoxically deploying oil and gas resources, inasmuch as they are used to build and sustain renewable energy technologies and infrastructure).

In any case, perhaps New Brunswick’s first-term Liberal government has received the global meta-message loud and clear. According to Energy Minister Donald Arseneault last week, new legislation tabled last week “gives NB Power the authority to deal with local entities on a smaller scale so that the economic benefit, the job creation and any money made from these investments will stay here in the province.”

He added: “There are all sorts of projects. There’s a biomass project and we have one in Dalhousie where they are interested in putting a turbine in the Charlo dam for one megawatt. And there are a lot of community wind projects. This is a way to create economic activity.”

It is, but as the IRENA report points out, none of it is easy: “In the coming years, renewable energy employment growth will depend on the return to a strong investment trajectory, as well as on continued technological development and cost reductions. Stable and predictable policies will be essential to support job creation. Finally, in a year when negotiators in Paris aim to carve out a global climate agreement, the broader policy framework for energy investments will also move to the forefront.”

And this is, of course, where the wheels have always fallen off the renewable energy cart: sustainability costs money; and the return on investment is more often a long-term proposition for governments and industry.

When was the last time anybody in the public or private sector openly mused about the value of durable benefits paid at some point in a fluid future?

When was the last time anyone dared utter the words, “social dividend”, as justification for sensible economic development?

Still, New Brunswick’s government appears to be heading down the only track that does, in fact, promise long-term rewards in the energy sector.

And that’s laudable, indeed.

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