Building Consensus on Energy and Climate in Canada: Insights from the Literature

Positive Energy

By Audrey Roy

Undergraduate Student, Positive Energy

audrey roy
In recent public opinion survey work, Positive Energy has identified that Canadians are polarized along partisan lines on a number of key energy and climate issues. At the same time, we have seen the negative effects of partisan politics on broader society. Against this backdrop, policymakers must consider how to build consensus in intensified partisan settings. This blog post discusses how consensus processes can help facilitate policymaking in divisive contexts.

Consensus Processes: Definition, limitations and potential

Political consensus is generally defined as the common acceptance of an opinion or decision achieved through discussions. The consensus process can therefore be identified as a decision-making practice that emphasizes the cooperative development of a decision

Consensus processes are designed to maximize participants’ ability to collaborate and minimize the risk that one group dominates others. A report from the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) highlights that consensus processes can work in almost all political circumstances with a range of participants, such as governments, private sector actors and civil society groups. These processes can work in addition to formal decision-making procedures and within established organizational mandates and authorities. Since all consensus processes are unique, they often take on various configurations to adapt to the specific situation in which they are applied. In fact, the NRTEE cites the application of this tool to issues as diverse as infrastructure, sustainable forest management and waste management.

The NRTEE identified ten guiding principles for consensus processes to achieve their full potential:

  1. Purpose-driven;

  1. Inclusive, not exclusive;

  1. Voluntary participation;

  1. Self-designed;

  1. Flexibility;

  1. Equal opportunity;

  1. Respect for diverse interests;

  1. Accountability;

  1. Time limits;

  1. Commitment to implementation of agreed actions.

Beyond these 10 principles, researchers in political science suggest applying the following formal negotiation techniques for building consensus in politically polarized settings:

  • Use nonpartisan, third-party facilitators in order to move political debate in a deliberative direction. This can facilitate negotiations by creating a safe environment that establishes a neutral meeting space, provides context to the issue, sets the tone and agenda of the meeting, and establishes participation guidelines;
  • Implement a process of repeated interactions, such as recurring meetings, to promote cooperation in the long term and encourage trust and honesty between participants. Establishing a distinct time, space, and purpose devoted to the consensus-building process can be beneficial to increase the sense of collaboration among participants who are discussing strategic decisions, high stakes decisions, or decisions where a strong and united front is important;
  • Ideally, all parties should commit to the decisions that were made within a consensus-building process. If an agreement has been reached, anyone who does not respect their commitments should be subject to penalties decided upon by the participants. These measures can help maintain accountability throughout the consensus-building process. 

In practice, consensus processes have limitations. First, they can be time-consuming, informal, and unmaintainable processes that may be subject to manipulation by powerful political actors. Furthermore, not all interests are easily represented during discussions, as political elites may only seek to represent populations that are critical to their political survival.

Nonetheless, consensus processes can be a useful tool to support policymaking, raise awareness, increase cooperation, and foster accountability. Consensus building allows decision-makers to discuss topics more openly and establish a stronger rapport when deciding on policy strategies. This allows for discussions that address more issues and aids in their successful implementation, which further encourages participants to collaborate even after negotiations have come to an end.

Examples of consensus processes around Canada’s energy future

Looking at energy decision-making in Canada, several recent initiatives provide examples of using consensus-building principles to foster deliberation and dialogue among Canadians about the country’s energy future in an age of climate change.

  • The Alberta Narratives Project (ANP) provides an example of inclusiveness. This project led standard focus groups for almost 500 Albertans – including farmers, energy leaders, senior business officials, environmental activists, and more – to share their views on topics such as renewable energy, climate change, and the future of oil and gas. A One primer document A primer from these consultations provides guidance for government officials to improve their understanding of constituents’ core values and concerns for energy policymaking.
  • The Just Transition Task Force for Canadian Coal Power Workers was a purpose-driven initiative to engage with coal communities, employers, unions, and policymakers and better understand their concerns around the transition away from coal-fired electricity. The engagements and resulting reports were characterized by respect for diverse interests.
  • The Natural Step Canada’s Energy Futures Lab uses techniques of multi-stakeholder collaboration to foster experimentation and innovation in Alberta’s energy sector, and seems to emphasize the principles of flexibility and voluntarism in its engagements.

These consensus-building projects, among others, present an opportunity to effectively take on climate change and energy concerns through policy action. It is important to note that while this blog does not discuss projects concerning the role of Indigenous Traditional Knowledge Systems, Practices, and Innovations within consensus-building processes, Indigenous people play an integral role in consensus-building for Canada’s energy and climate policies. To ensure that consensus discussions are inclusive, policy-makers should ensure that all voices and parties are considered at the decision-making table.

The above insights on consensus-building have informed Positive Energy’s research on how to build and maintain public confidence in energy decision-making in an age of climate change. In the coming months, Positive Energy will continue to publish studies exploring models of and limits to consensus-building. Stay tuned.

* Audrey Roy is an undergraduate student in political science at the University of Ottawa. In the 2020/21 academic year, she conducted research for Positive Energy as a student in FSS4150, Directed Research in Social Sciences, under the supervision of Professor Monica Gattinger. This blog summarizes a portion of her research for that course.