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The Higher ED Blog: What are the opportunities and challenges for a green economy?

Tara Vinodrai / January 11, 2016

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The Higher ED Blog: What are the opportunities and challenges for a green economy?

In late 2014, ahead of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21), we launched an on-going series on sustainability, economic development and the green economy. The deliberations at COP 21 and elsewhere open debate about how communities should respond to the challenges of climate change and other grand environmental challenges. Within this debate, many have pointed to the potential of the green economy and green economic development, based on clean technologies, renewable energy and a low carbon future. As the number of initiatives and interest in the green economy continues to grow, the green economy debate brings together questions of economics, politics, jobs and employment, supply and demand, as well as ethics. There are questions around the optimal ways to channel this momentum and build effective and resilient strategies for future development. But for local actors, what kinds of assets need to be in place to support green economic development strategies? What are the opportunities and challenges?

One of the recent graduates from the University of Waterloo’s Local Economic Development program, Nasim Adeli, tackled this difficult question. She worked as a researcher for Alison Blay-Palmer (Wilfred Laurier University) on the Research Partnerships to Revitalize Rural Economies project, an initiative led by the Monieson Centre in the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. The project led to a report on green economic initiatives in southwestern Ontario. Under the supervision of Paul Parker, Nasim extended this research for her major research paper where she explored the perceptions of the economic development and business communities regarding the relative importance of different local assets, as well as the opportunities and challenges of transitioning to green economic development in southwestern Ontario.

Within southwestern Ontario, Nasim focused on 8 cities: London, Brantford, Chatham-Kent, Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, Guelph, and Windsor-Essex. She conducted 27 in-depth, semi-structured interviews with individuals representing two groups of stakeholders: managers of ‘green’ small and medium enterprises (SMEs) (16) and economic development officials (11). ‘Green’ SMEs were defined as firms with activities in one of four areas: renewable energy, waste management, green buildings and retrofitting, and (alternative) transportation. All interviewees were asked a series of open ended questions about the green economy (current state, important drivers, critical assets and resources); the roles of government, policies and programs; the importance of partnerships and networks; outcomes, including job creation; and challenges related to green economy initiatives. Respondents were also asked to prioritize and rank local assets, indicate what assets or resources were not locally available, and identify the top four challenges encountered in developing a green economy.

Top assets: leadership, financing, exporting, and skilled labour

Nasim’s research revealed both differences and similarities between the two stakeholder groups (economic development officials, SMEs) and geographic variations.

While the economic development and business communities agreed that the green economy is a critical area for future investment, they disagreed slightly on which local assets were most important. Businesses identified business leadership and financial resources as the top local assets that were necessary for supporting the green economy; this was corroborated by economic developers, although this group felt that resources should be directed to incenting firms across sectors to operationalize sustainable business practices rather than only supporting the expansion of particular green industry sectors, such as renewables.

Local demand was seen as being of modest importance; instead, both groups felt that opening up new international markets was an area for government intervention and support.

Perceptions of human resources,  specifically the availability of skilled labour, varied across the study region, based in part on key local sectors and the varying strengths of local universities and colleges. For example, the University of Guelph offers high quality graduates and expertise in areas such as environmental science and bioproduct development,.  Meanwhile, businesses in the green building sector did not have a local source for graduates, design ideas, and innovations. Instead, they had to look abroad to places such as the United Kingdom and Brazil.

Top challenges: current policy and regulatory environments

In general, the major challenges identified by both groups were related to the current policy and regulatory environments. Table 1 (below) summarizes the top four challenges identified by each stakeholder group.

The business community was notably more concerned regarding political leadership and the lack of investment in sectors related to the green economy. Upcoming (and/or recent) changes in leadership due to elections at the federal, provincial and local levels promised both opportunities and challenges depending on the priority placed on environmental issues by different political parties. Economic developers were more concerned about educating the public regarding the various dimensions of the green economy, and why these were important areas for support, investment and development.

These differences are not that surprising and reflect the different positions held by the stakeholders involved.

Table 1: Top 4 Challenges in developing the green economy

Nasim table 1

Nasim’s major research paper alongside the results of the broader project, point to the growing importance of green economic activities in southwestern Ontario, as well as the potential for ‘green growth’. As Nasim notes in the conclusions to her paper: “[there is] great potential of the Southwest Ontario region to gain significantly from a transition to the green economy. … [However,] a successful transition requires a cultural paradigm shift at both the top, and the grass roots. This, in turn, requires political will and leadership, as well as education and messaging.” Ultimately, Nasim’s research points to the need for political and public understanding and buy-in to the importance of enabling businesses in the southwestern Ontario economy to participate in the next green economy.

Towards the next green economy?

Nasim’s major research paper alongside the results of the broader project, point to the growing importance of green economic activities in southwestern Ontario, as well as the potential for ‘green growth’. As Nasim notes in the conclusions to her paper: “[there is] great potential of the Southwest Ontario region to gain significantly from a transition to the green economy. … [However,] a successful transition requires a cultural paradigm shift at both the top, and the grass roots. This, in turn, requires political will and leadership, as well as education and messaging.” Ultimately, Nasim’s research points to the need for political and public understanding and buy-in to the importance of enabling businesses in the southwestern Ontario economy to participate in the next green economy.

 

About the author

Dr. Tara Vinodrai is Director of the Local Economic Development graduate program at the University of Waterloo and Assistant Editor of Higher Ed blog. She is an expert on urban economies, regional development, innovation and clusters, and the creative/cultural economy. Follow her on Twitter @TaraVinodrai.

About the series

Higher ED: Insights for the Next Economy is a platform for students, guest speakers, staff and faculty of the University of Waterloo’s professional and graduate economic development programs to share knowledge with the field at large. The series takes works destined for an academic audience and reworks them into a fresh, easy-to-digest blog article.

Established in 1988, the Local Economic Development program is the only master’s program in Canada devoted solely to local economic development. It offers a balance between theory and practice by combining coursework, a major research paper, an internship, and weekly seminars featuring guest speakers. Students are prepared for careers in local, community, or regional economic development.

The Economic Development Program is a nationally-accredited provider of professional training. It delivers certification programs and seminars that offer a deep understanding of the Canadian context in a convenient block format. Peer learning is combined with informative lectures and practical case studies to provide dynamic instruction that is beneficial for junior and senior-level practitioners.

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