Tomorrow’s graduates need a multidisciplinary approach to climate-change
Graduates who want to tackle climate change need an in-depth knowledge of sustainability, with its combination of economic, environmental and societal perspectives
Jennifer McKellar, Daniel Hoornweg, Hossam Gaber and Akira Tokuhiro
Climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts are creating and sustaining varied careers across Canada. Impacts of climate change are already manifest with less than 1°C global warming. Students graduating today will see significantly more climate change effects and intense debates on burden-sharing locally, nationally and internationally. There will be louder, more urgent calls for low-carbon energy, and Canadian graduates will increasingly be called on to help shape the global response to climate change and other planetary challenges. We need to ensure our graduates are entering the workforce with the knowledge and skills they need.
Many high school students are graduating concerned about climate change, but not well-versed on how to address the issue. A study by Wynes and Nicholas (PLoS ONE, 2019) found that “climate … curricula in Canadian secondary schools focus on human warming, [but] not [on] scientific consensus, impacts or solutions.” Starting in Europe and moving to Canada and the US, the “Fridays for Future” school strikes for climate are growing. Some 150,000 students participated in Montreal in March 2019 (Fridays for Future Canada, 2019). Many of these protesters may want to continue their education in ways that allow them to contribute through technically sound and socially acceptable solutions to climate change.
Changing energy systems
Changing how we supply and use energy is one of the main targets for mitigating climate change. Tomorrow’s graduates will need to operate in an environment where energy systems and associated socio-economic underpinnings vary by province and by country. For example, Alberta and Saskatchewan have a heavy economic reliance on fossil fuels and higher greenhouse gas emissions per capita than British Columbia, Ontario or Quebec (Flanagan, et al., 2016: Tbl 1), where there is growing emphasis on low-carbon technologies and ‘smart systems’ to reduce energy use. Canada needs renewed efforts in the near- to mid-term to develop resilient systems that combine appropriate technologies and socially acceptable policies.
The need to change our energy systems is broadly acknowledged, and indeed the transition has already begun, building on existing strengths across the country. A recent report by Clean Energy Canada (2019) found that between 2010 and 2017, “the [Canadian] clean energy sector grew at a rate of 4.8% …” annually, outstripping overall economic growth by 1.2%. Further, the number of people working in the sector grew by 16% over the same period (Clean Energy Canada 2019). Many of the clean-energy sector jobs are in ‘traditional’ areas such as nuclear and hydroelectric power generation, transmission and distribution of electricity and public transportation (Clean Energy Canada 2019). However, there is also a call to expand our workforce’s skillset to better support the energy transition.
“Tomorrow’s graduates will need to operate in an environment where energy systems and associated socio-economic underpinnings vary by province and by country.”
PwC (2018) notes we will need to develop new kinds of alternative energy occupations to respond to climate change and resource scarcity. In the recent Generation Energy Council Report (2018), “Skills and Talent Attraction and Development” is identified as a component of “Canada’s Energy Transition Toolkit”. Among the report’s suggestions:
- “… technical training to support the application of new technologies that advance efficiency and emissions reductions across all of Canada’s energy systems.”
- Preparing workers to fill positions related to “… planning, implementation and maintenance of retrofits and net-zero new construction, delivery of demand management programs, development of integrated urban plans, and other key jobs in the efficiency sector.”
In a recent search of job postings on Indeed, eight of the first 16 results for the word “energy” in Toronto had job titles relevant to the energy analysis and efficiency sector, including Project Coordinator – Energy Efficiency and Renewables, and Energy Analyst. Graduates need to be equipped with the skills to navigate this employment reality.
A multidisciplinary skill set
Students graduating into careers associated with climate change mitigation and adaptation require an in-depth knowledge of sustainability, with its combination of economic, environmental and societal perspectives. Graduates need new tools of systems analysis and a dynamic education with continuous learning. Technologies are changing fast; so, too, are social contracts and the norms associated with energy systems and climate action.
A university education can provide the skillset needed to excel in these new and evolving careers, one that is broad enough to let graduates see the ‘big picture’ but detailed enough for them to handle new issues and challenges as they arise. New degrees such as the Bachelor of Technology in Sustainable Energy Systems at Ontario Tech University (University of Ontario Institute of Technology) are designed to meet these requirements. An objective of this program is to provide graduates with technical and analytical skills, as well as the multidisciplinary perspective required to put those skills into effective action. At its core, this includes the ability to take a systems approach to analysis and a ‘sustainability’ perspective.
The energy transition has already begun, and employers are already looking for skilled workers. There are also calls to improve and expand on training. To succeed in these careers, graduates need hybrid skills that combine knowledge of the fundamentals of fast-changing technologies and social, economic and environmental implications. Graduates will need to be sufficiently adept at continuous learning to assess regular revisions of technologies, along with rapid responses to shifts in social licenses, economic priorities, governance structures and business priorities.
Jennifer McKellar, PhD, PEng, is an Associate Professor, with expertise in the techno-economic and environmental assessment of energy systems. Daniel Hoornweg, PhD, PEng, is an Associate Professor with expertise in energy and material flows in urban systems. Hossam Gaber, PhD, Professor and Graduate Program Director, research area intelligent control and safety systems for smart energy and transportation infrastructures. Akira Tokuhiro, PhD, is Dean and Professor with expertise and interests in experimental and computational R&D on next generation nuclear and energy systems. All authors are with the Faculty of Energy Systems and Nuclear Science at Ontario Tech University, and were involved in the development of the new Bachelor of Technology degree program.
Clean Energy Canada. 2019. Missing the bigger picture, Tracking the energy revolution 2019. May. Clean Energy Canada. Available at: cleanenergycanada.org/report/missing-the-bigger-picture/
Flanagan, E., Zimmerman, D., Horne, M., Frappé-Sénéclauze, T.-P. 2016. Race to the front: Tracking pan-Canadian climate progress and where we go from here. September. The Pembina Institute. Available at: pembina.org/reports/race-to-the-front-english.pdf
Fridays for Future Canada. 2019. Media release: Thousands of Canadian youth protest for third time. May 27. Internet. fridaysforfuture.ca/media-release-thousands-of-canadian-youth-striking-again-for-their-future/ Last Accessed: August 2, 2019.
Generation Energy Council. 2018. Canada’s energy transition, Getting to our energy future, together. June. Generation Energy Council Report. Available at: nrcan.gc.ca/sites/www.nrcan.gc.ca/files/energy/CoucilReport_july4_EN_Web.pdf
PwC. 2018. Workforce of the future, The competing forces shaping 2030. PwC. Available at: https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/services/people-organisation/workforce-of-the-future/workforce-of-the-future-the-competing-forces-shaping-2030-pwc.pdf
Wynes, S., Nicholas, K.A. 2019. Climate science curricula in Canadian secondary schools focus on human warming, not scientific consensus, impacts or solutions. PLoS ONE. 14(7): e0218305.