GLOBE VIPs (Very Impactful People): Steve MacDonald

Steve MacDonald

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.

Steve MacDonald’s career in sustainability began when former Alberta Premier Jim Prentice tasked him with developing a renewed energy and climate framework for the province. He continued this work after Premier Rachel Notley was elected in 2015, helping to create a policy framework with a comprehensive vision, strategies and outcomes to support environmental sustainability in and economic growth for Alberta.

In 2015, following an extensive career in the Alberta public service, Mr. McDonald became the Chief Executive Officer of Emissions Reduction Alberta. ERA is an Alberta-based not-for-profit corporation with a mandate to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and adapt to climate change by supporting the discovery, development and deployment of clean technologies.

We spoke with Mr. MacDonald about his work at ERA and tackling the climate crisis.


Tell me more about how you develop solutions to climate change at ERA.

ERA was established 10 years ago to invest the funds generated by Alberta’s carbon pricing system into solutions that reduce GHGs and decrease costs. In fact, over the last decade, we’ve invested over $500 million in technologies and projects that allow industries, ranging from agriculture to oil and gas, to decrease their carbon footprint while becoming more efficient.

For example, we’ve invested in hydrogen fuel cells for long-haul transportation, as well as utility-scale solar and energy-storage projects. We’re also looking at carbon sequestering opportunities in agriculture, in which carbon is stored in soils; as well as things as simple as changing feed additives, so that cattle emit less methane. Our portfolio of projects will deliver about 41 megatonnes of GHG reductions by 2030, create thousands of jobs, and have about $3 billion worth of GDP impact in Alberta.

I’m particularly proud of our work in the oil sands. Last year, we put out a call for ideas to improve oil sands sustainability. The result was projects that would reduce GHGs across all aspects of oil sands production, from mining to upgrading. We invested $70 million in these projects and industry stepped up with $700 million in matching investment.

We also ran a five-year competition called the Grand Challenge to identify technologies that can turn carbon into value-added products. We had two winners: CarbonCure

is focused on sequestering carbon in the cement industry; Mangrove Water Technologies takes wastewater injected with carbon dioxide and turns it into valuable chemicals that can be used for other industrial processes, which has a lot of applicability in the oil sands and other emerging energy industries.


Wow. That’s quite a range. What’s been your most inspiring moment in sustainability?

I find it difficult to choose a single moment. The business we’re in is inspirational by design because we are playing on the leading edge of technology and innovation, and accelerating the solutions the world needs. I’m inspired by the projects delivering real results. I find hope in the ambitious targets that the world has set through the Sustainable Development Goals, and how technology can help accomplish them.


Looking back, how have you seen the sustainability movement evolve over the past three decades?

We’ve moved from a lens of abundance, thinking that there will always be enough land, air and water to support our growth, to a lens of scarcity, realizing that we need to recognize the limits of resources, and honour and respect the planet. Sustainability has transformed from a nice-to-have to a fundamental aspect of doing business. Over the past few years, momentum has developed as customers, investors and governments have called on businesses to change their ways.  For example, in the last five years, an increasing amount of resources has been poured into cleantech. There’s a recognition that this is a viable business opportunity, and that customers, investors, and regulators want to see the sector grow.


That’s very encouraging, but the news often paints quite a bleak picture. How do you stay positive, inspired and hopeful with so much negativity out there?

For me, it’s really not about focusing on what’s broken or who’s to blame, as that perspective breeds defensiveness and polarizing conversations. I focus on what’s possible and those who care about making a difference.  This mindset fosters dialogue that forces people to suspend judgment, stay open to ideas they might not have considered, and actively listen. This mindset is mission critical for innovation. We need to take risks and embrace uncertainty to solve the climate crisis. Framing climate change as a possibility, rather than vilifying industries and sectors, gets more people in the tent.


Looking towards the future, what sustainability goal are you focused on in the next five to 10 years, and how will you accomplish it?

At ERA, we work on technologies that directly impact many SDGs, including climate action (Goal 13), improving the affordability of and access to clean energy (Goal 7), responsible consumption and production (Goal 12), and sustainable cities and communities (Goal 11). We tackle these goals with a portfolio approach. We have a technology roadmap that we use to target investments across multiple timescales. We invest in ‘doing-the-same-thing-better’ opportunities around energy efficiency, as well as game changers like carbon utilization technologies that either convert CO2 into a new product or reuse CO2 in a modified process.

At the same time, it’s not just about writing a big cheque. You need to have the right regulatory framework and some certainty in terms of policy direction that supports innovative ideas from the very early stage through to commercialization. You need to acquire customers. You need innovative business models. We try to be a convenor and bring the whole village together to come up with solutions that advance those goals.


The IPCC report found we have 10 years to stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis. What do we need to do in the next 10 years to ensure we have a sustainable and clean economy?

We need to put all the conditions for success in place. I sometimes worry that we become too focused on one idea, like a price on carbon, when, in fact, we need a suite of ideas to get us where we need to go. We need to create and support an ecosystem that generates many solutions.


Your first GLOBE event was Forum 2018. What was that first experience like?

GLOBE is like a one-stop shop with diverse people working on all pieces of that complete solution that I referenced before. It was a great opportunity to make connections that helped us do what we do even better.


Can you tell me more about the connections you’ve made at GLOBE? Do any particular experiences stand out?

At the last GLOBE, we partnered with The Delphi Group to host a conversation about scaling up clean technology. We had a great discussion around the barriers to financing, scaling up and growing cleantech. It also helped create awareness of what all the different players in the ecosystem are doing. People left with an understanding of how we could collaborate better. There was a report that came out afterwards that was very helpful, and we’ve convened more events to continue the conversation. There will also be an upcoming session at GLOBE Advance.

I love how GLOBE exposes you to a broad range of viewpoints and approaches to sustainability challenges. It’s a place where you can have these creative collisions and develop new relationships that shape your thinking and the solutions you develop. Sometimes within our individual jurisdictions we can feel that we’re the only ones struggling with particular challenges. But when you go to GLOBE, you meet a range of people looking at the same challenges through a different lens. It allows you to step outside your box.