Canada and the challenge of the climate tech revolution

Navdeep Bains and Elder C. Marques: The challenges ahead are big and urgent and they’ll require courage and leadership from both business and government

A worker adds lithium-ion battery cells at an Alliant Energy energy storage system in Decorah, Iowa, on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021 (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette via AP)

A worker adds lithium-ion battery cells at an Alliant Energy energy storage system in Decorah, Iowa, on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021 (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette via AP)

The Hon. Navdeep Bains is Vice-Chair of Global Investment Banking at CIBC and was the Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry in the Trudeau government from 2015 to 2021. Elder C. Marques is a partner with Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP where he advises clients on litigation, public policy, risk and crisis management.

Just before Christmas, the U.S. Department of Energy launched the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations.  The name may be boring, but its job is to spend US$20 billion on climate tech demonstration projects in areas like carbon capture, energy storage and small modular reactors. This is just one example of many existing programs that use U.S. tax dollars to leverage private funding to support carbon-friendly innovations.

All around the world, governments and investors are making similar bets on climate tech. Coal-dependent South Korea has announced tens of billions of dollars in its Green New Deal, to be spent before 2025, with much of it dedicated to new technologies. Europe’s climate ambitions include a series of partnerships with the private sector focused on technology, with the most recent example being a billion-dollar deal with Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Foundation.

The bets are big because they have to be. A study by Boston Consulting Group and the Global Financial Markets Association estimates that $100-150 trillion in investments are needed globally between now and 2050 to achieve Paris Agreement targets. A significant part of that money is to invent, develop and deploy new technology. The scale, speed and ingenuity of these necessary changes cannot be underestimated and there are few, if any, good historical analogies. Investors are catching on: PwC’s 2021 market tracking found that 14 cents of every venture capital dollar is now dedicated to climate tech businesses.  The complexity of this change extends beyond the technology itself; if targets are to be met, we need an alignment of incentives, regulation and financing models that we are only beginning to develop and understand.

Meanwhile, in Canada, our political discourse doesn’t always encourage policy-makers to try new and experimental approaches to support clean growth.  Ironically, the innovation and ambition we demand of our entrepreneurs is actively discouraged when it comes to industrial policy, where new approaches to supporting business innovation are invariably dismissed as “picking winners.” Canada needs more collaboration, not less, and even more courage and creativity when it comes to supporting partnerships that involve strange bedfellows who wouldn’t otherwise be incentivized to work together. Coming up on the fifth anniversary of the launch of Canada’s Innovation and Skills Plan, it is time to re-assess and be even bolder.

Canada has enormous benefits going into this challenge, including our institutional stability, our high levels of education, our ability to attract global talent and numerous Canadian start-ups with innovative solutions that could be essential to fight climate change. But our overall business investment in research and development peaked around 2001, and we continue to lag our OECD peers on several key innovation metrics. If we are going to seize the challenges of the climate tech revolution, we need to be frank about our successes and weaknesses and not shy away from ambitious, large-scale solutions that reflect the urgency and scale of the problems in front of us.

There are many encouraging signs. New approaches brought on by ESG, which weighs environmental, social and governance factors in thinking about business, have revolutionized how we conceive of risk. Advisors like bankers, accountants and lawyers now overwhelmingly recognize that they need an appreciation of what the climate crisis means for their clients. And for those that don’t, evolving rules, such as those around climate risk disclosure, will make them get there fast. Asset managers care about carbon footprints in a way that was unimaginable just a few short years ago, and we have every reason to think this focus will continue to become more intense.

But all these positive signs don’t mean that problems will take care of themselves. There are three key challenges that need thoughtful leadership from business, government and opinion leaders in Canada.

First, the challenge of decarbonization is real, urgent and expensive, and it requires large amounts of patient capital. Plenty of investors who are worried about ESG are simply abandoning sectors with imperfect metrics, when we need them to help underwrite the technological changes that are necessary to meet global climate targets. Divestment feels good, and in some cases is absolutely appropriate, but who is going to pay for the innovation needed to transform underperforming sectors, and make sure it is done in a responsible way?

Second, government needs to continue to play a role. It must, for a start, look at how to make both the development and deployment of climate tech more affordable for industry. But just as important, it is uniquely placed to create models that incentivize cross-sectoral partnerships that can unlock more climate tech innovation and commercialization. In Canada, our primary research and post-secondary sectors are strong, but often disconnected from businesses. We need to find ways to translate research into marketable innovation, and then help our dynamic young climate tech start-ups grow to match the scale of the climate crisis.

Finally, we need a cultural change that sees the climate tech revolution as inevitable, urgent and essential to Canada’s future prosperity. Canada can either lead it or passively fall into line behind others. That choice shouldn’t be a difficult one, but it means we need all hands on deck to make sure the strategy and investments match the well-meaning rhetoric.