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We can’t back down from Renewable Regina

In November 2020, progressives in Regina celebrated the election of a largely progressive city council, signaling a potential shift towards more equitable and sustainable municipal policies. But just a few months later city council has already found itself in hot water for attempting to take a tangible step towards the city’s goal of becoming 100 per cent renewable. On January 20, councilor Daniel LeBlanc’s motion to restrict fossil fuel companies from exercising sponsorship and advertising rights in the city elicited an intense backlash which has, once again, made clear the struggle that faces Saskatchewan when it comes to decarbonizing our economy and our mentality.

LeBlanc’s motion proposed an amendment to the draft policy of Regina’s Sponsorship, Naming Rights and Advertising Program, which was first presented to the previous council back in November 2019. The program seeks to explore naming and sponsorship opportunities in the city with the aim of creating an additional revenue stream. The amendment would bar fossil fuel companies from the program, categorizing them with alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. This proposed amendment complements another motion, passed unanimously in October 2018, to move the city towards 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050 (Renewable Regina, as it came to be called). The original motion was not only readily accepted, but acknowledged as the appropriate response to mounting global and local climate change challenges.

Yet the motion to disallow fossil fuel companies from sponsorship and advertising in the city has incited fury not only from those with vested interests in the fossil fuel industry but also from members of the public who have nothing tangible to gain from siding with oil and gas over the environment. Given the wide support for Renewable Regina, it seems like this amendment should be uncontroversial. So why have the two motions, one that set a long-term goal and the other which put a concrete step in place to meet that goal, drawn such different responses? The reasons are two-fold. First, the proposed ban and subsequent public uproar sheds light on the enormous difference that exists between committing to a drastic goal set far into the future with no immediate legal or economic bindings, and the tedious process of putting into practice actions that are concrete steps towards achieving that goal and that shake up the status quo. The second reason is tied to Premier Scott Moe’s exaggerated and unwarranted response to the amendment, which, intentionally, drew outsized attention to the motion.

The proposed ban and subsequent public uproar sheds light on the enormous difference that exists between committing to a drastic goal set far into the future with no immediate legal or economic bindings, and the tedious process of putting into practice actions that are concrete steps towards achieving that goal and that shake up the status quo.

When a motion is approved, the next logical step is typically to undertake actions that support the implementation of the intended goal, which in the case of Renewable Regina, would mean to incentivize renewable energy and disincentivize fossil fuels. However, there seems to be a reluctance to commit to that second goal of disincentivizing fossil fuels in the city. And this relatively benign motion wouldn’t have necessarily even had any disincentivizing impacts on fossil fuel companies since the ban would have only restricted them from sponsoring and putting their name on public buildings and public events, without any ramifications for the existing sale or consumption of fossil fuels in the city. The impact, therefore, would have been more symbolic than material.  Similarly, the concerns over the potential “loss” of a “lucrative” revenue stream may have been blown out of proportion since there are no current or anticipated future fossil fuel sponsorships that will be impacted.

People are upset that the motion vilifies the fossil fuel industry, which is deeply anchored in the Saskatchewan’s economy and culture (although responsible for only 3 per cent of jobs in the province) while others feel blindsided and lament the lack of public consultation prior to the motion. This raises the question, if the motion had been made more palatable, would it have been more acceptable? Perhaps adopting a layered approach that offers a leeway to companies with disclosed commitment to transition to more renewable options within the next couple of years could have softened the widespread blunt disapproval? Probably not, given that the amendment only targeted companies whose “primary” business was fossil fuels and still drew so much ire. The fact of the matter is, regardless of how the terms are packaged, there will always be some form of resistance to initiatives that pose real challenges to the operation of fossil fuel companies in the province.

The fact of the matter is, regardless of how the terms are packaged, there will always be some form of resistance to initiatives that pose real challenges to the operation of fossil fuel companies in the province.

This isn’t the first time we have seen politicians in Saskatchewan walk back or even abandon their support of renewable energy policies and projects. There have been several instances in the recent past when environmental advocates were left disappointed by leadership, like the time when the scope of Renewable Regina was scaled back from community-wide transition to municipal operations only, or the time when a climate change denier was invited to speak at the conference aimed at chalking out a road map for renewable energy in the city (he was eventually uninvited, but the city was still on the hook for his fee), or even before that when the provincial Net Metering Program was revamped, significantly reducing subsidies for the solar industry, with devastating results. There have been plenty of roadblocks in the way of pursuing a more sustainable future for Regina, but many progressives had hoped that with this new city council, those roadblocks would be fewer and more readily overcome.

Based on reservations expressed by constituents, most of the councilors have backtracked on their support to the motion. And with LeBlanc’s announcement that he would support withdrawing the motion in the next council meeting because “many people are angry and anxious” – to the point of threatening physical harm on councilors – there’s little doubt that the motion will not hold up. While this turn of events may ease the tension, it won’t come without a set of additional risks. The situation is reflective of a deeper conflict that is associated with the reluctance to let go of our dependence on fossil fuels.  If the city isn’t ready to do the bare minimum to discourage fossil fuels, how does it expect to achieve the goal of transitioning to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050? This is the time to accelerate actions towards a transition instead of backpedaling and conceding to the fossil fuel industry.

Switching to renewable energy sources is not solely about economic and policy decisions, instead it involves a massive social change. More than technological and scaling factors, there are the non-technological barriers, such as lack of political commitment and the community’s readiness, that need to be addressed before headway can be made towards the renewability of the city. But if we wait until everyone is fully on board to make any moves at all, we will never get anywhere. As long as we shy away from making uncomfortable – but meaningful – decisions about the fossil fuel industry, the renewability of the city will remain an unachievable goal. The sooner we learn to make peace with the transition, the better it would be for the economy, the community, and the planet.

This op-ed has been updated to include that some councilors who initially supported the motion have backed down because of physical threats.