The Canadian Academy of Engineering / CAE Blog

Engineering and Policy

Robert Crawhall, CAE Executive Director

Can the insights and perspectives of experienced engineers help in the development of government policy and if so, how? Policy making at all levels of government is a complex affair involving many actors and stakeholders. Is one more going to make a difference? Political calculus and a strong emotional narrative are often major success factors in getting policy implemented. In recent years governments have learned that science can also help inform good policy and, where possible, generate the evidence that can serve as a solid, rational foundation for decision making.

Organizations such as the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) of which the Canadian Academy of Engineering (CAE) is a founding member, and the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering (PAGSE) in which the CAE is also a member, undertake assessments and distill complex science and technology into the essential elements required by policy makers. In addition, many not-for-profit organizations hold conferences, write reports and hold seminars where policy makers can tap into many informed perspectives.

So why does the CAE believe that another, distinctive voice is required? The fact is that many of the major policy initiatives today lead to large, complex engineering projects and it so happens that many Fellows of the CAE have spent their careers leading large multifaceted projects and developing a deep understanding of emerging technologies. First-hand knowledge of the resources and time required to deliver fully functional solutions by a specified date as well as the risks and required contingencies is an important input to decision making.

For example, it is not enough to encourage people and organizations to address climate change on a best effort basis. As a country, we actually have to deliver to a performance standard (net-zero) by a date (2050). There are real-world consequences to failing to achieve this mission, for Canada, and for many other nations. Even with commercially successful carbon capture and storage (CCS), it is generally estimated that Canada will need to at least double its electrical generation capacity to meet the electrification targets for transportation, industrial processes and heating.

The first commercial hydroelectric energy was produced in Canada in 1881 when Ottawa entrepreneur Thomas Ahearn installed a generator at the Chaudière or Akikodjiwan Falls. By 1885 Ottawa became the first city in the world to electrically light all its streets and the Canadian Houses of Parliament were one of the first to be lit by electric light. 140 years later Canada possesses over 140 gigawatts of generating capacity. Doubling that capacity over the next 30 years is a non-trivial engineering task, and represents only one element of a massive industrial transformation that will be required.

Meeting our 2050 objectives requires having a plan. This plan involves multiple steps including assessment, consultation and negotiation. Canadians have managed some of the largest engineering projects on the planet, but no one has ever taken on something this big.

In 2016 the CAE published the Trottier Report on Energy Futures. The report laid out multiple pathways that Canada could pursue to reach its climate change targets. As time passes those pathways becomes fewer and more treacherous. Over the months and years to come the CAE will be working hard to articulate an “engineering perspective” on net-zero and other grand challenges of our time.

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Hydro dam In the Ottawa,Valley