Canada’s Green Energy Sector Now Employs More People Than Its Tar Sands

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Between 2009 and 2013, employment in Canada’s clean energy sector increased by 37 percent — meaning it now supplies more jobs than the country’s infamous tar sands, according to a new report.

Tracking the Energy Revolutionreleased Tuesday by Clean Energy Canada, a climate think tank — defined clean energy jobs as any work involved in the production of clean power; in the manufacture of the related equipment; in creating energy efficiency technology or services, like smart grids and building energy savings; in infrastructure for green transpiration; and in biofuels. All told, those sectors employed 23,700 people in Canada as of 2013, while the tar sands industry employed only 22,340.

“Clean energy has moved from being a small niche or boutique industry to really big business in Canada,” said Merran Smith, the director of Clean Energy Canada.

Green energy tends to be more labor intensive than energy from fossil fuels, meaning that every unit of energy produced by green sources tends to employ more people than those sources that come along with carbon emissions. In America, research suggests green jobs are more accessible to workers without a college education, that green sectors grow a bit faster than the economy as a whole, and that they more successfully weathered the 2008 recession.

The report also noted that Canada’s energy generation capacity in wind, solar, and other renewable sources has grown 93 percent over the past five years, and investors have pumped $25 billion into green energy in the country over that same time period.

Canada’s tar sands — also referred to as oil sands or bituminous sand — are the third-largest oil reserve in the world, according to estimates, and the Canadian government anticipates capital investment in production there to reach $218 billion over the next quarter century.

They’re also made up of bitumen, a particularly dirty form of crude oil, meaning burning it would contribute massively to global greenhouse gas emissions. The rush to exploit the tar sands has sparked protests in Canada and an increasingly pro-fossil-fuels tilt in the federal government, leading to tension with environmental groups. Here in the U.S., it’s driven the ongoing controversy over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would ship the bitumen south to the Gulf of Mexico.

Not surprisingly then, Clean Energy Canada’s report described Canada’s federal government as “noticeably absent” when it comes to policies to support green energy. “Every major industrial sector in Canada — from the aerospace industry to the oil sands — has gotten off the ground with support from the federal government,” Smith continued. “But in the clean-energy sector, the federal government is really missing in action.”

Instead, the analysis attributes the growth in Canada’s green jobs primarily to efforts in the country’s individual provinces. British Columbia has already passed a law requiring its utilities to eventually get 93 percent of their power from renewable sources (though the language allows natural gas into the mix) and has cut fossil fuel consumption with vehicle efficiency standards and a temporary rebate for citizens who bought low-carbon automobiles. Ontario has laid down a Long Term Energy Plan and a feed-in tariff system to promote a transition to renewable energy and clean and efficient infrastructure. Québec has bulked up on hydro and wind to the point where it’s now exporting clean electricity to other provinces and the United States, and the province is pushing clean-energy space heating and walkable urban density.

All that said, the report acknowledged that, like Canada’s federal government, other provinces such as Alberta and Saskatchewan still lag on the green policy front.

To help renewable energy along at the federal level, Clean Energy Canada’s report recommends including tax subsidies for battery technology and solar power in the government’s 2015 budget. It also calls on the government to bulk up public investment in the infrastructure new green energy will need to plug into: new and upgraded transmission lines, smart grids, charging stations and the like for electric vehicles, and other infrastructure related to green energy.

The report also recommends a Canada-wide system for pricing carbon. On that score, British Columbia’s carbon tax might be the most helpful model. The policy has been in effect in 2008, and since then it’s successfully cut the province’s fossil fuel consumption across nearly all sectors of its economy, and without any adverse consequences for the economy or job growth.

A carbon tax is more of an emission-cutting tool than a renewables-supporting tool specifically. Businesses and individuals can also reduce their emissions by taking on more efficient technologies, using electric vehicles, changing their transportation habits, altering their supply chains and business models, and a host of other efforts. But by building the price of climate change’s future damage into the cost of fossil fuels here and now, a carbon tax also makes carbon-free energy in all its forms more competitive by comparison.