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Sask. could win in the zero-carbon economy but isn't seizing opportunities: report

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Saskatchewan lags behind other provinces in capturing opportunities in the global transition to a net-zero carbon economy, according to a new report.

"I think this needs to be the priority of governments across Canada," said Jonathan Arnold, senior research associate at the Canadian Climate Institute, a national nonpartisan independent think tank that provides policy advice to governments on long-term issues related to climate change.

"The global low carbon transition is accelerating rapidly. We're really talking here about the future livelihoods, jobs and incomes of workers, families and of entire communities. And there is a risk that if we do not prepare ourselves for this transition, then parts of Canada and some provinces are at risk of being left behind. These markets are already becoming increasingly competitive. So it really is incumbent on governments to take this seriously and make sure that the economy and the workforce are geared up for this."

Saskatchewan doesn't have as many companies active in the clean hydrogen and low carbon electricity, transportation and mining technology markets, Arnold said.

The province's oil, gas and coal sectors also lag in decarbonizing their activities to make themselves globally competitive, he said.

"When you consider the transformative investments being made in some provinces, like Ontario in their automotive manufacturing sector to really transform into making EVs or look at some of the activities that are happening even in Alberta to decarbonize some of their heavy industry, we're not quite seeing that same level of activity in Saskatchewan."

However, Saskatchewan has a lot of opportunities for the zero-carbon transition, as it has some of the biggest potential for wind, solar and geothermal energy, he said.

In addition, 43 per cent of the 23 transition sector companies the group identified are involved in agricultural technology and alternative proteins, he said.

"There's lots of room to grow there, we know that demand for agriculture and alternative proteins is going to increase significantly. And then also things that may not be intuitive, necessarily, to some folks, like helium, and this is an area that I know the province has prioritized and is exploring. Helium will play a certain role in the transition as it's an input to lots of different technologies. So that's also another opportunity."

The stakes for a successful transition are high, as six per cent of Saskatchewan's workforce is in transition-vulnerable sectors, the third-highest mark in Canada. Four communities of at least 10,000 people have high workforce concentrations in oil and gas and mining: Lloydminster (14 per cent), Estevan (13 per cent, Weyburn (11 per cent) and Swift Current (three per cent.)

"The transition is incredibly important. We want to make sure that that is as smooth as possible for workers. You know, some sectors have pathways to transition that are clearer than others. The automotive sector, for example, it's pretty clear that the future is in zero-emission vehicles and that transition is already happening.

"For a province like Saskatchewan, oil and gas is a harder nut to crack. I think there are still lots of opportunities there for companies in the sector to, first of all, reduce their emissions to become more globally competitive, as there's a higher premium on carbon emissions, but also to transform into other business lines.

"Instead of remaining as oil and gas companies, they start transforming into energy companies more broadly. That might just mean getting into renewables, it might mean getting into low carbon hydrogen, which is already happening in Alberta. It means really leveraging carbon capture utilization and storage technologies.

"It really is about transforming into other activities where demand is expected to grow. And we're already starting to see that in other provinces. I think Saskatchewan could do a lot more to capture some of those opportunities."

He said one of the most important steps is having policy certainty for businesses and investors, including a price on carbon that increases over time and environmental and climate regulations that encourage things like low carbon vehicle adoption and low carbon fuel adoption.

"I think there's tons of room there for the government to, in some cases, just rebalance how public funds are used to achieve economic benefit in the community and really go after the areas where demand is expected to grow."

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