Smart Prosperity’s Research Network conducts world-class research focused on a stronger, cleaner economy. This Spotlight Series highlights the activities of faculty and student researchers alike, showcasing the breadth of expertise and activities of our Research and Student Networks.
Colleen: Currently I am working on a major research project looking at a Canadian case study on decarbonizing road transportation, which is part of a broader research program known as STIR (Sustainability Transitions and Innovation Reviews). This project aims to assess the fitness of Canada’s entire policy mix for promoting a transformative low-carbon transition in the transportation sector. The focus on the whole policy mix, as opposed to effectiveness of a single policy, provides especially interesting insights into driving these kinds of transitions in a relatively decentralized federation like Canada. Unlike scoreboard or index assessments, STIR is focused predominantly on policy mix and governance using an approach based on quantitative indicators and a qualitative expert appraisal on a country’s performance.
The two high level research questions this project attempts to answer are: How policy mix and governance of Sustainability Transitions and Innovation in Canada responds to the challenges of sustainability transitions, notably the challenge of transition towards a low-carbon transportation sector? AND How the Canadian performance compares to selected economies around the world?
Nathan: The rise of electrified transportation holds the potential to profoundly shape our society. Beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions and local air pollution, electric vehicles (EVs) will have impacts on how electricity is managed, the demand for fossil fuels, and how we manufacture and maintain vehicles. These impacts will be uneven over time and space. As we’ve witnessed in the past year, the pace of change is increasing, with some provinces taking the lead promoting electrification and others falling behind.
My SPI-supported research project with David Wolfe (University of Toronto) examines the regional political economy of electrified transportation. It looks at how Alberta, Ontario, and Québec are preparing for this potentially disruptive change and draws insights from California and Norway, two leaders in electromobility policy.
Nathan: One major policy implication of my research is that Alberta, Ontario and Québec will need additional strategic government support to create a thriving market for EVs, to help Canadian businesses become vital links in the EV supply chain, and to attract investment, technology and expertise from foreign companies. This isn’t about starting from scratch but rather reorienting pre-existing regional assets and leveraging international assets to capture value here in Canada from this mobility transformation.
These findings remain extra relevant considering the call for a green recovery. Over the course of the pandemic, we have already seen federal and provincial governments devote more resources to build out the EV supply chain in Ontario and Québec. Beyond this, policymakers can do more to increase the selection, availability, and affordability of EVs. Combined with improvements to public transit and active mobility infrastructure, these also are key ways to help address the worsening inequality crisis in Canada.
Colleen: My research is applied in nature, and the insights gathered during this exercise will ideally improve our understanding of the strengths and weaknesses in the Canadian policy mix for promoting decarbonization in the transportation sector. It can also contribute to a policy learning process by providing a framework for national debate and policy reflection on concrete steps to improve current STI policy. In the context of a green recovery from the pandemic, these insights are needed now more than ever to ensure recovery policy efforts and investments are effective in helping the country “build back better”.
Colleen: In addition to decarbonizing transportation, I am actively involved in research focused on increasing the agility of Canada’s regulatory system in order to promote clean innovation and growth. This area of research directly supports the federal government’s stated objective of increasing regulatory agility and also contributes to a relatively new sub-field of research focused on leading-edge design practices for institutions and rules to effectively govern in an increasingly complicated, uncertain and rapidly evolving environment. I am currently undertaking case study analysis of leading examples of agile regulation in Canada, with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Initial aspects of the research have been synthesized through an ongoing Smart Prosperity Institute blog series on the key characteristics of agile regulation (read Blog 1 introducing the series, Blog 2 on ‘flexibility’ and Blog 3 on ‘stringency’). The final blog on ‘dynamic predictability’ will be released shortly.
Nathan: Alongside my work on the politics of electromobility, I also study the politics of climate policymaking, particularly in those areas with major fossil fuel industries. I’m currently working on a book, based on my PhD dissertation, that compares the climate politics of Australia, Canada, and Norway and explains why there is such policy variation across these countries and a shared challenge to decarbonize. I’ve also recently completed a book chapter that looks at regulatory capture in Alberta by the oil and gas industry.
Colleen: Students are often in the habit of learning by memorizing information and regurgitating it in some form. This is obviously important in terms of building one’s knowledge base – but don’t forget to think critically about the information. Ultimately, what is of the most value as you progress in your studies, is furthering knowledge by using your informed position to think for yourself and ‘add your two cents’. Don’t forget to step back and spend time reflecting on academic material, making connections in order to deepen your understanding.
Nathan: Undoubtedly, my work experiences have helped me get into prestigious graduate schools, secure competitive funding, and informed my academic research. I worked for a nature conservation NGO in France before completing a Masters in Planning from MIT. My masters thesis on the environmental governance of Alberta’s oilsands led me to become a policy analyst with the Pembina Institute where I researched oilsands and pipeline policy for four years. More recently during the final year of my PhD at the University of Toronto, I was a Senior Campaigner for Oil Change International, where I helped coordinate a campaign which advocated for the International Energy Agency to create a net-zero by 2050 energy scenario.
As I’m finding out now, these experiences also take time away from churning out scholarly research and may make the road to a tenure-track professorship more difficult. But they also grounded my research questions so that they have relevance for those seeking to strengthen climate policy and helped me to build a broader network of professional contacts.
Colleen: Honestly – this is a tricky question. I would certainly like to continue furthering the lines of inquiry I am currently involved in but there are also so many other areas related to my current work I would like to explore. For example, there is a need to better understand how citizen participation in decision-making can strengthen climate policy resilience and durability – and how best to do this. I would also like to dive deeper into how regulators can best govern emerging technologies, especially those in the cleantech sector (broadly defined). There are so many interesting questions out there to be answered – there really is no shortage of options.
Nathan: Tricky is putting it lightly! I’m increasingly interested in how historical research can help bring to light lessons that can shape how we approach the critical goal of net-zero emissions by mid-century. I’m currently pulling together an interdisciplinary team of world-leading experts and funding to help make this next research project happen. I’ll be happy to share more details once the funding is approved!
Thank you Colleen and Nathan!