GLOBE VIPs (Very Impactful People): Merran Smith
Over the past 30 years, GLOBE Series events have brought together a community of 170,000 change–makers, executives, innovators, dreamers, government leaders, inventors, thinkers, investors and youth. To celebrate our 30th anniversary, we’ve invited a few of those Very Impactful People to share their stories with us.
Merran Smith is the Executive Director and Founder of Clean Energy Canada, the co-chair of the Climate Leadership Team for the Government of British Columbia, a fellow at the Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, a Clean16 award recipient, and a recipient of the Wilburforce Foundation Award for Outstanding Conservation Leadership.
Ms. Smith also played a critical role in preserving the Great Bear Rainforest, participating in an unprecedented collaboration between industry, NGOs and First Nations to protect one of Canada’s most stunning natural assets.
We spoke with Ms. Smith to learn more about her incredible track record and what inspires her to continue striving for a more sustainable world.
How did you start working in sustainability?
I grew up in British Columbia with a father who took me camping, hiking and boating. Nature is embedded in my DNA. I went to university to become a biologist, but I soon realized it wasn’t a lack of science that was killing the planet. It wasn’t that we didn’t understand the problem, it’s that we weren’t doing anything about it. The political will to act wasn’t there. My journey began in Central America, where I worked in communications and sustainable development for over a decade.
I came to realize that we have the potential in Canada to create long-term, durable solutions. We’re wealthy, we’re not at war, and we’re educated. If we couldn’t do it in Canada, how could we expect other countries to do it? That’s when I got involved with the Sierra Club and forest conservation in the Great Bear Rainforest.
The first time I flew over central B.C., the forests blew my mind: intact, pristine temperate rainforest as far as the eye could see. After that flight, I knew I had to do my part to protect it.
Tell me more about your work in the Great Bear Rainforest. What were the challenges and how did you succeed in protecting the area?
The Great Bear Rainforest in central and northern B.C. is one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest left in the world. There’s abundant and exotic wildlife—spirit, grizzly and black bears, rainforest wolves, orcas, humpbacks and sea lions—and a network of large and small valleys with old-growth forests and trees over 2,000 years old.
By the end of the 1990s, the remote Great Bear Rainforest was becoming a crowded place. More than a dozen First Nations lived in the region, a half dozen major logging companies operated there, and a dozen or so environmental groups were running local and international campaigns focused on the area that were attracting international attention. Buyers of B.C. wood products were raising concerns, even ending contracts to purchase B.C. wood. While all these players had a stake in the region, many of them were not speaking to one another. By the end of the millennium, this ‘war in the woods’ conflict had grown so hot that everyone knew something had to give.
However, the solution wasn’t clear. Both the status quo and proposals put forward by governments, industries and others were unacceptable to First Nations and environmental communities. A few of us realized that we needed to dig in, shift the dynamic, and help craft the solution. That was a real turning point for me, realizing that it was up to us to innovate and create a solution out of the tension and conflict. It started a 10–year process of listening to communities, First Nations and forest sector workers.
The end result was a conservation package that linked ecology and community well-being. The Great Bear Rainforest contains a quarter of the world’s remaining temperate rainforest, and in the end, 85% of it was protected from industrial logging.
The solution also included associated government–to–government agreements and $120 million of conservation financing. This package allowed local First Nations to improve their capacity, implement agreements in a manner that supports their communities and cultures, and to create businesses better aligned with their values. Because it was comprehensive enough for most everyone to see their futures in it, the Great Bear solution is still intact today.
How did you pivot from conservation to clean energy?
While on maternity leave, I finally read the pile of books beside my bed about climate change. I decided I had to focus on this issue because, if we couldn’t solve climate change, our conservation efforts were going to be for naught. I came back and created Clean Energy Canada. The idea was simple: a clean energy organization that would unite Canadians. That meant focusing on the solutions to climate change. Focusing on what we can do, what that looks like, and how we all benefit. You can’t effect national change without a national consensus, and that meant we needed to ensure we were speaking to average Canadians—not just the already converted.
What’s been your proudest moment at Clean Energy Canada?
One was when the federal government came out with the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. For the first time in Canadian history, the federal government and most of the premiers agreed on a climate plan that would meet our global commitment—a commitment to do our part on climate change. They’ve since delivered on many aspects of that agreement: the coal phaseout, electric vehicle incentives, support for cleantech, and putting a price on carbon pollution. It’s a long list. Now that the federal Liberals have been re-elected, I’m looking forward to seeing how they will create a plan to meet and exceed their targets.
A second proud moment was the launch of the CleanBC plan, which put British Columbia on track to meet its Paris climate targets. There is still a lot of work to be done, but the first phase of the plan was applauded by sectors across B.C.’s economy, by First Nations, and by environmental groups.
Thinking back on this past year with Clean Energy Canada also fills me with pride. We just wrapped up our biggest year ever for communications. We released two milestone reports highlighting the size, scope and potential of our fast-growing clean energy sector. We got a lot of press. We ran campaigns through social media, video and radio. This is a conversation we’ll be continuing for years, but we made significant strides in 2019.
With so much negativity in the news, how do you stay positive, inspired and hopeful?
At Clean Energy Canada, our motto is “relentlessly positive.” I stay optimistic by focusing on where progress is being made, namely in India, China and Europe. They’re making huge investments in renewable electricity, especially solar, wind and electric mobility.
I also find inspiration in corporate leadership. For example, Daimler says they’re only going to focus on developing electric cars from here on out. Volvo’s CEO said the combustion engine is going to be a thing of the past. Ørsted, a Danish oil and gas company, has transformed itself into a nearly 100% renewable energy company. Ikea is committing to zero-emission delivery trucks. These big companies are recognizing their contribution to the problem and taking action. They’re also demonstrating the cost–savings and profitability that can be found in clean energy.
We’re seeing change accelerate across the global economy. So yes, that keeps me positive, inspired and hopeful, even on the bad days.
According to an IPCC report, we have until 2030 to significantly reduce our emissions to stave off the worst effects of climate change. What changes are necessary to make this happen?
I’ll start with the big one: we need to electrify everything, from vehicles to heating to industry. We won’t electrify literally everything by 2030, but we need to be well on our way to everything. We can also turn waste into fuel—renewable fuels. Next, we need to waste less energy—this one’s a no-brainer. Canada is one of the least efficient major economies. Efficiency is good for the bottom line and it cuts pollution. This means major infrastructure upgrades. Infrastructure lasts for decades, so when we build we’re locking in future climate impacts—both good and bad. Let’s choose good.
Lastly, we need to be pragmatic. I didn’t say “compromise”—I said “pragmatic”. That means policy that realistically can be implemented in the near term. It means messages that resonate with the majority of Canadians, not just a handful. At the end of the day, we have a problem that needs real solutions and, as Angela Merkel put it, “Politics is that which is possible.”
What do you enjoy most about GLOBE?
I enjoy coming together with a community that shares the same vision: creating more sustainable businesses and, ultimately, creating a cleaner world. The connections, the parties, the coffee chats in the halls—these are some of the best parts of GLOBE. It’s the people that make a place.