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Exploring pathways to decarbonization and sustainability in Canadian energy systems

Exploring pathways to decarbonization and sustainability in Canadian energy systems

Mark Winfield has a new co-edited book on Sustainable Energy Transitions in Canada (UBC Press, 2023), examining decarbonization and sustainability in Canadian energy systems. EUC work-study student Xinyu Mei interviews him on the importance of the book and of the need to pay attention to wider sustainability goals in the process of decarbonizing the Canadian economy.

Q. Why did you and your colleagues work on this edited volume of case studies on climate change, energy systems transitions, sustainability, energy policy, and environmental policy across Canada?

Mark Winfield

A. We have reached a kind of culmination point on research projects around transition, energy storage and renewable energy efficiency as well as conversations about climate change and energy system transitions in Canada. I have been networking and having conversations with people over the Ontario network for sustainable energy policy and this volume is like a conversion of the conversations and networking to tell where we are at and what are the steps moving forward.

Q. Does the rapid acceleration of the global energy transition in the media lend even more urgency to this volume and ongoing conversations on climate change and energy transitions in Canada?

A. The heightened pace of the global energy transition highlighted in the media amplifies the urgency of this volume for several reasons. Firstly, there are simultaneous accelerations and maturation of technologies, particularly in areas such as energy storage. Secondly, there is a deepening discourse surrounding the nature of transition pathways. Governments are actively engaging in discussions, considering trade-offs, and addressing issues such as critical minerals, with a focus on implications for Indigenous communities and ecological sustainability. These evolving dynamics underscore the need to incorporate these elements into the ongoing conversation.

Q. What are the key overall takeaways for readers and what are some key principles?

A. The key takeaways for readers centre around the multifaceted nature of sustainable energy transitions, extending beyond mere carbon considerations. The complexity involved necessitates a comprehensive understanding. Nine guiding principles serve to illuminate and make sense of the policy challenges tied to achieving Net Zero goals. Readers are encouraged to derive their perspectives while gaining insights from others. The principles underscore the importance of ecological, social, and cultural integrity, emphasizing the need to integrate these aspects into sustainable practices. Beyond environmental considerations, economic opportunities arising from the energy transition are highlighted, offering a forefront focus amid less commonly discussed principles. This holistic approach encourages a nuanced understanding of the broader implications of sustainable energy transitions.

Q. What are some of the key issues in Saskatchewan and Manitoba?

A. In Saskatchewan, resistance to decarbonizing the electricity system aligns with Alberta's stance, reflecting anticipated challenges. Despite apparent opposition, a decarbonized pathway has been contemplated for Saskatchewan. The lack of visible research may be misleading. Conversely, Manitoba, while grappling with similar inquiries, exhibits a more receptive approach, with Manitoba Hydro showing increased openness to discussions. Evolving dynamics in both provinces suggest a shifting landscape. Notably, there are intriguing developments in remote First Nations communities, underscoring the need for enhanced capture and understanding of these dynamics moving forward.

Q. Any thoughts on what Canada can do to advance our national conversation on sustainability and energy transition?

Book launch on Jan 26 at Schulich with Mark Winfield, Stephen Hill and James Gaede.

A. In the current Canadian landscape, the national discourse on sustainability and energy transition faces challenges due to the breakdown in federal-provincial relations since 2016. The federal government, while steadfast in its climate commitments, shoulders the primary responsibility for climate policy. Concerns arise about growing political fragility, exemplified by debates like the Alberta coal phase-out surviving transitions. The nation must navigate these challenges to uphold consensus and ensure a cohesive approach to sustainable practices and energy transition. Maintaining a shared vision for the future is crucial amid shifting political dynamics and diverse regional interests.

Q. After publishing this new book, will you continue with your research on “Addressing Global Challenges to a Canadian Low-Carbon Energy Transition”?

A. This new book is an output of current research. After the publication of Sustainable Energy Transitions in Canada I plan to further develop this ongoing research. This book only reflects data and cases up to June 2023, acknowledging subsequent changes and outstanding challenges. Considering the dynamic nature of the subject, we may explore future editions. I am open to utilizing the book as a textbook, extracting essential chapters to improve students’ understanding of the issue and to contribute to a clearer comprehension of energy transition. Our readers' interest and feedback are crucial for future updates and improvements.


Mark S. Winfield is a professor of environmental and urban change, and co-chair of the Sustainable Energy Initiative at York University. He is the author of Blue-Green Province: The Environment and the Political Economy of Ontario. Read YFile for more info and articles in Policy Options and The Conversation.

Stephen D. Hill is an associate professor and director of the School of the Environment at Trent University. He has been awarded the Symons Award for Excellence in Teaching, the CMHC Award for Excellence in Education, and Trent’s Community Leadership Award.

James R. Gaede is a research manager at Efficiency Canada, Carleton University, and author of the annual Canadian Energy Efficiency Scorecard report.