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UN Environment Boss Tells Canada’s Fossil Fuel Leaders to ‘Embrace the Change’

By Mike De Souza for the National Observer.

Erik Solheim doesn’t mince his words when it comes to industry giants that fail to embrace change in the global economy.

Solheim, a former Norwegian cabinet minister, is the new top boss of the United Nations Environment Programme. Speaking at an early-morning breakfast with a mixed crowd of environmental stakeholders, policy experts and media in Ottawa, he said that Canada’s fossil fuel companies need to take stock of what’s happening before it’s too late for them.

“Many of you will remember Kodak,” Solheim said at the event hosted by the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development. “They didn't believe in digital photography. Where is Kodak now? In industrial museums somewhere.”

Ottawa is the first stop on Solheim's tour of North America after he was appointed a few months ago as executive director of the UN agency based in Nairobi, Kenya.

His message was also delivered in a series of private meetings with federal cabinet ministers — Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna, Global Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion and International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau — and comes at a time when Canada’s energy debate has been hijacked by arguments about new pipelines to Canada’s east and west coasts.

“The world is full of companies that oppose change and many of them are out of business now.”

Solheim used the example of cell phone maker Nokia.

“Basically because they didn’t believe in touch screens," he said, drawing some chuckles from the room. "Steve Jobs believed in touch screens. The Koreans believed in touch screens. Nokia didn't believe in it and they are out.”

Energy companies, along with some business and union leaders say that new pipelines such as TransCanada Corp.'s Energy East, Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Expansion and Enbridge's Line 3 replacement are key to boosting fortunes for slumping oil and gas companies.

On the other side, many environmentalists, First Nations leaders and politicians are skeptical of the long-term economic benefits of new pipelines, while warning the projects pose unacceptable risk of oil spills and would push Canada’s climate change goals out of reach.

“If Canada doesn’t embrace change, it will lose,” he said. “For economic and environmental issues combined. Of course some fossil fuels will remain a source of energy for some time, but the changes are coming much faster than anticipated. The price of solar is going down much faster than anyone thought. And energy efficiency provides solutions to a lot of issues if we really embrace it. So embrace the change.”

Rumours circulating in Ottawa have spread across the country suggesting that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government wants to approve at least one major new pipeline project to support Alberta’s NDP government.

Some federal Liberals believe this would prevent Conservatives from regaining control of the oil-rich province, which is home to the oilsands, the world’s third largest reserve of oil — after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela — and Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Without weighing directly into the country’s pipeline debates, Solheim said Canadians would have to create space for Trudeau to make bold decisions.

“We need to make people out there (to be) enthusiastic because if there’s not a citizens movement, for (sustainable) development and environment it’s very difficult for political leaders to do it,” he said.

“I mean business leaders and political leaders, even if they are of the caliber of Mr. Trudeau, need the support of the people. So we must speak with people and make people enthusiastic for the environment.”

He also stressed the importance of working closely with businesses to encourage more leadership and solutions. He said that last year’s international climate summit in Paris achieved results because some important companies said they were willing to take action, recognizing the potential to make money and create jobs by seizing the green agenda.

“There has been a long-term view in the UN and in the development of the environmental community and fostered maybe by people like me, coming from the left, that business was something dirty, something you should be afraid of, rather than an enormous opportunity for change,” he said.

Solheim said he sees a fast-growing list of companies and countries that are leading the way to the future.

Image: Erik Solheim. Photo: Mattis Folkestad, NRK P3 via Flickr

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Mike De Souza is National Observer's Ottawa-based Managing Editor. He has covered politics for more than a decade, focusing in…

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