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The Interview: Post-COVID Recovery Becomes Added Lens for Climate, Energy Efficiency Programs, Dunsky Says

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  • Apr 30, 2020

Philippe Dunsky

Photo Credit: Dunsky Energy Consulting

Philippe Dunsky is President of Dunsky Energy Consulting, a 35-person Canadian firm specialized in accelerating the clean energy transition. In early April, he circulated a sampling of the energy efficiency, clean energy, electric mobility, and climate action plans his firm is continuing to support through the pandemic, with members of his Montreal-based team conducting their work from home. He talked to The Mix about what a future of rapid decarbonization could look like post-coronavirus.

The Energy Mix: What are you doing differently in light of the pandemic?

Dunsky: Quite frankly, I’m really enjoying working from home, spending more time with the kids, and being home for family dinner. Not being on a plane every two to three weeks is amazing. At work, we are fortunate that we moved to an online collaboration system 18 months ago, so everyone was already used to working through that platform. It’s a big challenge keeping the human connection, but we’re a tight-knit group of 35 people and we’re staying close.

The work is continuing, but it’s changing in two ways. We’re looking at how the pandemic changes the dial for the work we’re doing: if we’re designing an energy efficiency program or assessing the potential for electric vehicle adoption, we’re starting to build some assumptions about COVID into the near-term, three- to five-year horizons. We’re making sure we adjust our analysis to account for that wherever possible.

I’m also spending more time now on moving the needle forward on a green economic recovery, at the federal level and here in Quebec, and that is big work. We’re working with governments and stakeholders, publishing op eds, and trying to increase the focus on how economic stimulus and recovery investments can be used to simultaneously advance the fight against climate change.

The Mix: You’re looking at three to five years as the near term?

Dunsky: We feel with some confidence that economic activity over the coming three to five years will be materially impacted by COVID-19; what we don’t yet know is whether and to what extent it will impact non-economic behaviour. For example, will consumers be less likely to buy electric vehicles because their disposable income is stretched thinner, or more likely because they’ve internalized the value of clean air and healthy lungs? The answers may differ across socio-economic strata too.

So to help our clients find their way forward, we can start building scenarios around how COVID will affect their plans. There’s no value at this stage of the game in changing the longer-run forecasts, but in a couple of years we’ll hopefully be in a position to do that.

The Mix: What remains the same?

Dunsky: Pretty much all the work we’re doing. We’re busy designing programs coast to coast to help municipalities and communities decarbonize. We’re conducting longer-run assessments of the potential for improved energy efficiency, for renewable energy, for electric vehicles, for reduced emissions, and those are not changing right now. We’re evaluating what programs have achieved in the past couple of years. The next two to three to five years is where we’re at least raising flags and thinking about whether we need to revisit the assumptions.

The Mix: Do you see shifts in the policy rationale for energy efficiency and clean energy?

Dunsky: That’s a really good question. I have not felt a big shift in the rationale for what we’re doing. To a very large degree, speaking for myself, the purpose is the same and as strong as ever. If anything, this only reinforces our fragility, and the importance of doing everything we can to not put additional stressors on this planet and the people and beings that inhabit it. So from that perspective, there’s no change at all.

That said, for a number of our clients and for us, as well, there is a bit of an angle change to some of the work we’re doing. So for example, whereas a year ago 90% of the focus for a climate plan would have been on emission reductions, now we’re looking for the best emission reduction opportunities that can also stimulate the economy in the near term.

So that lens gets added on top of what we’re doing. But it’s really important that the additional lens be additive, not competitive. We want the carbon reduction opportunities that also maximize near-term economic benefits and fit within the coming need for economic recovery, as a way of making sure we do both right away.

The Mix: In drawing the links between the two crises, what should we not be doing, and why?

Dunsky: I do believe we should not be overreaching. What we shouldn’t be doing is trying to build a narrative that COVID exists somehow because we’ve been delinquent on the climate file. I just don’t think that bears out in reality to any significant degree. And I don’t this is a time to be focused on the ‘you didn’t listen to us, and therefore…’ kind of frame. The flip side of the coin is to focus on the opportunity that we have to overcome the economic disaster that’s been created. We do that by putting things through a climate recovery lens.

The Mix: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Dunsky: I’m hopeful on one hand that we can get some real positives out of this, both in the response on the economic recovery side, and also in the way we do things. Increased telecommuting and working from home can have a real impact, and reducing travel, especially air travel, would be a very positive outcome given how challenging that normally is.

At the same time, I hope this doesn’t turn us inward to the point where we get so narrowly focused in our communities that we think less about the world, about our neighbours elsewhere. I’m concerned that this whole thing could feed into the protectionist forces that are out there, and that we—in our drive to strengthen our own communities—can inadvertently feed into that, too.

COVID-19 should be a reminder of how small and fragile our world really is. To turn inward would be to neglect that fundamental lesson.

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