Clean-tech ‘Bulls’ Battle Climate ‘Bears’

Published in The Tyee | March 22, 2014 | Circulation: 340,000 unique monthly visitors

As he prepares to speak in Vancouver about the state of green technologies, Tom Rand is very worried about the bears.

The manager of the MaRS Cleantech Fund is one of eight panelists at the Walrus Talks Energy panel event on Tuesday (March 25) evening.

But the bears this Toronto-based engineer and green investment enthusiast frets about aren’t your usual furry scavengers.

Rand describes today’s ultimate dilemma as between the rapidly growing clean-technology sector (“clean-tech bulls,” as he calls them) — long-busy innovating tangible ways to cut carbon emissions — and the world’s imminent climate catastrophe (“the climate bear”).

“I’m a clean-tech guy,” he says in a phone interview. “I make a lot of money at it, but honestly, to mix my metaphors, we’re selling lifeboats on the Titanic… I can be as optimistic as I want to be in my investments. But I can still be realistic about whether or not that’ll happen fast enough to get out of this mess we’re in.”

Still, for Rand, the case for clean technology innovation is an economic no-brainer, and the first and only defence against the bear.

“Techno-optimists believe the market will solve our problems. Climate pessimists say that climate change is happening likely too quickly for technology to solve it. The question, ultimately, is not whether innovation can get us out of this problem — it can — but rather can it move fast enough?

“The jury is still out.”

Bulls on steroids

Historically, major shifts in society’s dominant energy sources — exemplified by the Industrial Revolution, but evolving ever since — take roughly 100 years to take hold, Rand argues. Trouble is, we only have a maximum of 20 to 30 years to reverse our carbon footprint before all is lost, he says.

“Strong as the bulls are, they need some steroids,” he quips. “We need to accelerate the market if we’re going to solve this problem.”

Rand’s involvement with MaRS, which recently partnered with the Ontario government on a green innovation hub, includes not only the investment side of market-driven solutions to carbon reduction, but also the MaRS Discovery District, which offers free tools and expertise to entrepreneurs wanting to take their ideas to the next level.

“We take the clean-tech that’s there already and turbo-charge it,” he boasts. “It’s like Dragons’ Den on steroids, except we actually do real work and roll up our sleeves. I’m not interested in apps and new flavours of bubble gum, but in reducing carbon emissions globally and achieving economic success.”

What’s in the way? For one, Canada is way behind other countries when it comes to green energy, laments Rand, who has all but given up on this country being a major part of the solution.

“It would be great to solve the problem in Canada, but we’re scourges when it comes to carbon,” he says. “We have to get our act together here in Canada, and get serious about carbon reduction.”

With Ottawa disinterested, Rand believes Canada’s companies will have to export their clean-tech innovations to countries that are ready to roll up their sleeves.

A rigged market

Sponsored by oil sands giant Suncor, Canada’s largest energy company, the Walrus event, which Rand’s talk is a part of, is drawing criticism even from big supporters of technological approaches to solving the climate crisis.

“How could you have a credible series on energy sponsored by Suncor?” asks Guy Dauncey, founder of the B.C. Sustainable Energy Association and author of The Climate Challenge: 101 Solutions to Global Warming. “What’s their position on climate change? Are they effectively putting a price on carbon? Why would I have faith this is in any way good or progressive?”

(On its website, Suncor says it has a “seven-point climate change action plan” and is “investing in solutions” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.)

Energy sponsors aside, Dauncey sees promise in Rand’s zeal for shifting the market towards clean energy. Both agree on the need for a significantly higher price on carbon in Canada. But is the capitalist market alone the right vehicle?

“The entire market is a rigged market, because it doesn’t include the costs of externalities,” Dauncey says. “They’re all offloaded onto the public purse — health care costs, climate impact costs. We are paying those costs. Calgary paid those costs last summer. Everyone’s paying it through their insurance bills. A true market would have a price on carbon.”

Rand says that although MaRS is based in Ontario, the organization aims its services at entrepreneurs across the country. Considering the boom in green technologies out West, are there any plans for an office in B.C.?

“This is a national conversation,” Rand replies. “We’re ready to help B.C. entrepreneurs; we just have to make them aware of us. I’d love to have an office in Vancouver. If we could get an office in B.C., we’d open the equivalent of MaRS Clean Tech.”

While he might be anxious about the proverbial “bear” in the room, Rand harbours no doubts that green innovation “is going to make some people a pile of money.” The question is whether the lucrative clean-tech “bull” about which he is so passionate is fierce enough for the fight.

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