While discussion swirls around the objectives and potential impacts of the federal government’s plan for a “just transition,” it’s vitally important to emphasize that transforming Canada’s workforce for a net-zero economy cannot mean abandoning the country’s largest industrial sectors.

Any such exercise needs to be focused on sustaining not eliminating jobs.

In the public’s imagination, transforming our energy system means infrastructure and jobs in renewable energy and electric vehicles replacing more traditional jobs in resource extraction and heavy industry. In fact, with the growth of promising technologies in carbon capture and storage (CCS) and other emissions-reduction innovations, opportunities for skilled industrial workers remain wide open. Canada is already a leader in this technology, and with thoughtful policies at the federal level we can ensure that jobs and communities not only are protected but will thrive into a net-zero future.  

Canada’s role as a leader in large-scale CCS dates back more than two decades. We are home to five of the world’s 30 commercial CCS facilities, with several operations that are the first of their kind in the world, and we currently account for 15 per cent of global CCS capacity (while generating less than two per cent of global emissions).

A prime example is SaskPower’s Boundary Dam Unit 3 (BD3), the world’s first large-scale CCS facility. It has been operating since 2014 and recently reached a key milestone: it has now captured five million tonnes of CO2 — equivalent to taking more than one million cars off the road for a year. In addition to proving safe capture and underground storage of CO2 are possible, bringing BD3 to life has highlighted the tangible opportunities that accompany CCS development, including hundreds of millions of dollars invested in communities and the practical, lasting economic benefits those investments provide.

Building on this world-leading experience, Canada is developing carbon capture, pipeline and storage technology across a wide range of industries including cement, steel, mining and fertilizer, petrochemical, oil and gas, and hydrogen fuel production. To be clear: CCS is not just about oil and gas. If all Canadian and global heavy emitters don’t pull their weight in putting carbon back in the ground where it started, then any hope of fighting climate change is dashed.

The growth of carbon capture and storage technology will allow for a transition to net-zero while maintaining the viability of industries that have long sustained communities and workforces across the country. It will also put Canada and Canadian workers at the forefront of a potential boom in project development, construction and implementation of the next large-scale phase of emissions reduction.

We can have our environmental cake and eat it, too.

With its “just transition” policy announcements, the federal government has acknowledged that a shift in the economy to reduce carbon emissions will have a generational impact on jobs, on a scale that for now can only be guessed at. Our goal should be to prepare our workforce to thrive in a low-carbon economy while minimizing the impact of labour-market transitions.

To build this capacity, industry is looking for strong signals that investments in CCS and other emissions reduction technologies align with Canada’s low-carbon future. Wider investment in CCS requires clear policy providing long-term certainty on carbon pricing, along with other mechanisms that will ensure Canada remains an attractive location (especially when compared to the United States) to undertake multi-billion-dollar projects. The timing could not be more critical, as policies finalized in 2023 will clear the runway for achieving Canada’s ambitious climate goals — to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by one-third by 2030 and be net-zero by 2050.

If we do not, that giant sucking sound you are beginning to hear is the flow of billions of dollars south of the border, to the land of milk and Inflation Reduction Act-infused honey.

This column was originally published in the Financial Post on February 1, 2023.