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'We have to get our act together, especially around climate change in the next 10 years'

Sustainability thought leader Bob Willard sees Alberta transitioning to a global economy
March 16, 2016
”We think we have a lot of time to get things under control, but 2030 is a likely drop-dead date, so timing is becoming critical to start implementing smart sustainability strategies," says Bob Willard, a sustainability expert and author who was invited to speak by the University of Calgary and the Centre for Corporate Sustainability. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

”We think we have a lot of time to get things under control, but 2030 is a likely drop-dead date, so timing is becoming critical to start implementing smart sustainability strategies," says Bob Willard, a sustainability expert and author who was invited to speak by the University of Calgary and the Centre for Corporate Sustainability. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

“The downturn the energy sector and the City of Calgary find themselves in marks the beginning of a fundamentally different kind of economy,” says Bob Willard, the visiting thought-leader on the business case for sustainability, who was in Calgary March 2-4.

“People are losing their jobs by the thousands, and there are no signs the price of oil is coming back in any substantial way in the near future,” Willard notes. But the sustainability leader sees a lot of opportunity in this economic situation. He is even bullish on the future of our city.

Willard, who earned a PhD in sustainability from the University of Toronto and established himself as a leader in industry for more than 35 years, has written four books on the business case for sustainability. He was invited to Calgary by the university’s Centre for Corporate Sustainability, in partnership with the Office of the Vice-President (Research). He had engagements with the Office of Sustainability, the City of Calgary and the local policy and outreach agency Pathways 2 Sustainability, which were organized through the Urban Alliance.

Throughout Willard’s visit, he emphasized the importance of integrating smart sustainability strategies that help companies survive economic downturns while positioning them to thrive in the new economy. He described how companies can use sustainability as a means to achieving existing company goals without affecting the bottom line, and that addressing sustainable environmental and social concerns could come at a profit, not an expense to organizations.

Bringing Willard to Calgary and maximizing his time here reflects the depth of the commitment of the University of Calgary, which launched an Institutional Sustainability Strategy a few weeks ago. Dru Marshall, provost and vice-president (academic) noted, “Bringing in experts, like Bob, and facilitating multiple community discussions to advance thinking around sustainability is a great example of the type of collaboration for systemic change outlined in our new strategy.”

Opportunities

Willard believes that what we see now in Alberta is not a downturn but “the beginning of a transition to a different kind of global economy.  And the way you handle it is very much governed by whether you think you will go back to normal or whether you are trying to get to a different kind of economy.”

“We have to get our act together, especially around climate change in the next 10 years,” says Willard. ”We think we have a lot of time to get things under control, but 2030 is a likely drop-dead date, so timing is becoming critical to start implementing smart sustainability strategies. There is absolutely no doubt that we as a human civilization need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuel … or figure out a way to use carbon fuel without emitting any carbon.”

This realization leads the inductee into the International Society of Sustainability Professionals Hall of Fame to believe that a way for the city to come out of this downturn is by fully embracing renewable energy and to get to 100 per cent as soon as possible.

The University of Calgary’s strategic research theme, Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow, is focused on the transition to a low-carbon future that ensures people have the energy they need, but with dramatically lower environmental impacts. All of these advances would create new, more sustainable jobs, before and after the transition and increase the GDP, according to Willard.

State of affairs

To kick-start these initiatives, Willard believes Calgary should be at the top of the list to be getting stimulus money from the federal government.

“I think this city has earned the right to be at the front of the line,” says Willard without hesitation. “Calgary already has the people working in energy research and in policy development — to transition to this new economy. All they need is a bit of stimulus money to ramp up their efforts.”

According to Willard, Calgary could easily be the proof of concept the federal government needs to implement similar programs across Canada.

“If we can pull it off here, we can pull it off anywhere,” he says, citing the fact that Calgary has the combined expertise between the highly focused university researchers in energy, NGOs and the city staff to capitalize on stimulus money.

Willard points to the Urban Alliance research partnership between the city and the university as an example of collaboration already in place that the city needs to bank on.

The alliance provides a framework for researchers and city planners to solve problems around transportation, waste reduction, energy and environment in the community.

"The University of Calgary is a leader in energy and sustainability research," says Ed McCauley, vice-president (research). "Bringing experts like Bob to our campus and building strong partnerships with the City of Calgary and other organizations creates the opportunity for collaboration amongst decision-makers and thought leaders. This leads to the formation of new ideas, and advancements in our research and technological endeavours."

Willard adds, “Most universities historically have been academic islands in a sea of reality. The uniqueness of the University of Calgary is that they have formalized that bridge much more than other universities have.”

Sustainable all the way

When it comes to sustainability, Willard certainly walks the talk.

“I really don’t travel anymore, especially fly, for a 45-minute talk,” he says. “On the other hand if I can group together multiple meetings and speaking engagements, I feel I get a better return on my carbon footprint.”

He achieved that goal while in Calgary, giving two public lectures hosted by the University of Calgary, meeting members of the business community and the City of Calgary, conducting a workshop with the university’s Operational Sustainability Committee and talking at a Pathways 2 Sustainability roundtable.

His visit was made possible through the leadership of the Centre for Corporate Sustainability in the Haskayne School of Business, the Office of the Vice-President (Research), the Urban Alliance, the Office of Sustainability on campus and by NGOs, and the City of Calgary.

To see a copy of Willard’s presentation, Communicating the Business Ca$e for Sustainability, click here.

Located in the heart of Canada’s energy sector, the University of Calgary has built a reputation as a global leader in energy research and innovation. With a focus on our low-carbon future, diverse teams are also assessing the effects of energy-related processes while harnessing unconventional hydrocarbon resources through the Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow research strategy. (link to: http://ucalgary.ca/energy/).