GLOBE 2020 Q&A: Jon Mitchell, Vice President, Sustainability at Suncor

GLOBE 2020 Q&A: Jon Mitchell, Vice President, Sustainability at Suncor

As we navigate the future of the environment, energy and the economy, questions remain about the best path forward.  We sat down with Jon Mitchell, Vice President, Sustainability at Suncor to get his and Suncor’s perspective.


Suncor is one of Canada’s largest energy companies, and you talk about being committed to developing long-term, sustainable solutions and being part of something that’s bigger than just one company or industry. What does this look like in action?

We recognize that addressing big challenges like climate change requires all of us to work together. That means recognizing that the best solutions come when everyone is at the table and is willing to bring their best ideas forward.

At Suncor, we’ve been focused on sustainability for over two decades. Although we’ve made some tangible advances in environmental performance, we know that there’s more work to be done, especially if the world is to successfully transition to a low-carbon future and still meet growing energy demand.

Transforming our energy system is a complex challenge, but we’re optimistic about the path forward. We are approaching business opportunities by thinking about providing the energy people need in a sustainable way that they want. This isn’t about achieving business success by simply managing the bottom line. It’s about creating business success by helping build a resilient society.

I’m excited about the progress we’re making. For example, we recently announced a new cogeneration facility that will help green Alberta’s electrical grid and avoid the equivalent emissions of 550,000 passenger vehicles per year. We’ve also announced the Forty Mile Wind Project, which will provide the equivalent of 100,000 homes’ electricity use per year. Add to that our completion of Canada’s electric highway, with EV charging stations at our Petro-Canada stations from coast to coast, and you’re beginning to see how we’re embedding sustainability as a value driver in our business decisions.


What would you say to those who say that the oil sands are part of the problem, not the solution?

We as an industry, and as society, need to find a way to take rapid action on climate change while supplying the reliable energy our world has come to expect. The oil sands provide energy continuity and we are working hard to reduce the GHG intensity of oil sands production. At the same time, we are developing low-carbon options such as biofuels and renewables.

Transforming our energy system while continuing to meet the world’s needs will require getting the best out of both traditional and new sources of energy. We must expand upon the expertise and experience that we have gained from traditional resources and apply that knowledge and skill to create the low- carbon future we all want.

Some people might be surprised to learn that the oil sands industry is one of the largest markets for clean technology in Canada. At Suncor, we have decades of expertise, skill and knowledge that is being applied to the emerging energy economy. We’ve been part of the biofuels industry since 2006. An exciting example of the future of the industry is our recent investment in Enerkem, which transforms municipal waste into renewable liquid fuels. It’s exciting to see how expertise we’ve gained in running existing oil sands facilities is being leveraged to drive improved performance in the biofuels industry and help build an emerging market.


What are your biggest challenges? Opportunities? How have things changed in the last five years?

It seems that the last five years have only gotten more complex and the need to take action has become more urgent. As a result, we need to move faster on solutions. One of the big opportunities is through technology. We’re investing in emerging and potentially transformative technologies, including new digital capabilities. We’re increasingly applying digital technologies to improve reliability and environmental performance of our operations. For example, our facilities use real-time data to manage reliability. This means better energy efficiency and fewer emissions. We’re also very excited about our new strategic partnership with Microsoft and where it will take us.

We think there’s good reason for optimism – businesses are mobilizing effort and collaborating like never before, and we’re seeing large investments being focused on innovation and technology. There’s an incredible opportunity for Canada and Canada’s energy industry to lead in the energy transition and the effort to solve the climate change challenge.


Can you talk about some successful examples of collaboration and action on climate in your sector?

We often say that there’s no monopoly on good ideas. For us at Suncor, it means listening and learning from a wide spectrum of individuals and groups. We believe collaboration is key if we’re going to address sustainability-related challenges and opportunities.

We work with many different organizations as part of the path to a better future through technology, including Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance (COSIA) and the Clean Resource Innovation Network (CRIN). We’ve also partnered with Evok Innovations, a clean tech fund which combines the pace and creativity of a Silicon Valley start-up with the experience and insight of industry experts to accelerate early-stage technologies.

For us, collaboration doesn’t stop with technology. We’ve also participated in ground-breaking social initiatives like the Energy Futures Lab (EFL), which brings together diverse partners to advance a fit-for-the-future energy system. We’re also listening to and learning from Indigenous communities. An example of the potential that we can realize is the historic $500 million equity partnership that we announced with the Fort MacKay and Mikisew Cree First Nations at our East Tank Farm. We’re hopeful that this is emblematic of how deeper relationships with Indigenous communities can lead to different partnerships in resource development.


What does “energy transformation” mean at Suncor?

To be a successful company in an increasingly complex world, investors, employees, Indigenous communities and partners, suppliers, governments and stakeholders need to see us embedding sustainability into our decision making. More than ever, they want tangible proof of our commitment to care for the earth, improve social systems, and generate economic value.

For us, energy transformation means leveraging technology and innovation. It will require deep listening and collaboration – sometimes with those that we don’t always agree with. And it will mean acknowledging that, while we don’t have all the answers, we’re committed to a better future.

Not only are we focused on our own efforts, we are embarking on a journey of integrating sustainability into our supply chain to serve as a driver of change and progress. Later this month, we are hosting a sustainability forum with our major suppliers. Our goals are to learn from each other and to further embed sustainability practice throughout the supply chain, with a focus on driving down emissions and building creating greater value for our Indigenous partners and suppliers through mutually beneficial relationships and collaboration.


What do you wish people asked you, but don’t?

We think that any good conversation about our energy system starts with being curious about what could be. Asking questions helps start meaningful conversations about the nature of our energy system today and what it will take to make changes going forward. Some examples of questions that would be great to have some dialogue around are:

  • “How should we define Canadian leadership in the transition to a low-carbon future?”
  • “How should all parts of the economy and regions of the country work together to achieve that vision of leadership?”


How can Canada develop its own unique, national narrative on climate action?

In Canada we have an opportunity to create the space for a different conversation around what leadership looks like for Canada’s transition to a low-carbon future. Canada has a strong, diversified and resource-rich economy; a world-leading financial sector; and excellent capacity for innovation. By harnessing these advantages, Canada can be among the leaders in the global transition to a low-emissions future as a trusted source of climate-smart solutions, expertise and investment.

The opportunity is there if we choose to take advantage of it. Canada can demonstrate leadership through strong domestic actions, global leadership when it comes to emissions performance across all sectors of our economy, and public policy that enables innovation and improved performance.


What does 2050 look like if we’ve got it right?

We’re seeing a lot of governments and businesses making announcements with a 2050 time frame. It’s encouraging to see the level of awareness and ambition increasing when it comes to climate change. In the end, actions will count.

2050 is not a date when utopia arrives, but rather a point we can target to make sure that we are driving meaningful results and that today’s ambitious pragmatism works.  Looking back from 2050, success will mean everyone in the world will have access to the energy they need, without having to compromise on social or environmental wellness. That likely will mean increased electrification; opportunities to develop new technologies, products and value chain; and innovation to address the world’s biggest sustainability problems, through collaboration across sectors and circular systems.

The challenge before us – to have ready access to energy that doesn’t cause environmental damage – is a large challenge, but not a challenge that is beyond our collective abilities.

2020 Starts the Decade for Effective Climate Leadership - Offsetters

2020 Starts the Decade for Effective Climate Leadership

By: Phil Cull, CEO, Offsetters 

Heading into 2020, the world faces a pressing reality—we have 10 years to keep global warming below 1.5ᵒC and cut global emissions by 45% of 2010 levelsMeaningful change has had a slow uptake; however, the last few years have been a turning point for mass public awareness and advocacy on environmental issues. By the end of last decade, millions of people across the world had taken to the streets to protest climate change inaction. The messages echoing from the streets were clear: We are not doing enough. Listen to the science. Protect nature and people. Act on climate.  


The best time to act was yesterday. The secondbest time is now. 

The next decade is our last opportunity to take responsibility for what climate scientists have been saying for yearsIt is clear that we need to transform the way the global economy impacts the climate, environment, and people. It is clear that sustainability as it has been approached in the past isn’t enough anymore. And, after the disappointing results of COP25 in Madrid, it is also clear that business leaders have the responsibility to lead in areas where international cooperation remains at a standstill.   

The good news is that businesses are starting to get the messageIn our work within the carbon management space, we have witnessed an important corporate culture shift towards embracing climate actionPrivate sector interest in carbon management is growing rapidlyIn 2019, between September and December alone, corporate buy-in to Science Based Targets doubled in sizeHundreds of organizations have come to us curious about measuring, reducing, and offsetting their impacts. However, climate leadership still needs to go beyond just measuring and offsetting emissions. 


We need the leaders of the future to step up today. 

Although there are now 187 countries signed onto reduction targets through the Paris Agreement and more than 9,000 companies and governments worldwide reporting environmental information to the Carbon Disclosure Project, we are still failing to meet global targets. Since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, global emissions have still increased by 4%The UN has now reported that we need to reduce emissions by at least 7.6% every year by 2030—that’s if we started todayBy 2025, the reductions necessary for a 1.5 degree world could be as high as 15.5% each year 

There is a lot of work to do. 


Effective action requires real climate leadership. 

A future where real climate leadership takes center stage will require a sense of urgency, innovation, a lot of grit, and a true commitment to change. Venturing away from the comfort of doing ‘what you think you can’ towards doing ‘what you know you must’ is both difficult and necessary for effective climate action 

Climate leaders of the new decade will need to embrace new valuesOur 2020 climate leaders will be committed to transparency and continuous improvement—mapping their supply chains and taking responsibility for all their impacts. They will be engaged in climate policy and lobbying for more effective systems that create real solutions. Climate justice and equity will be front of mind—prioritizing relationships with Indigenous communities, the land, and all other stakeholdersLeaders will have redesigned business models that prioritize Science Based Targets, natural capital, equity and diversity, circular economies, internal carbon prices, and enforceable policies to support them. The thought leaders of the 2020s will transform entire industries. 


We’re ready for change. We just have to create it. 

Some companies are already leading the way. In December 2019, Harbour Air made headlines for its historic launch of the world’s first all-electric commercial airplane. Harbour Air has always been committed to climate action. The Vancouver-based airline has been Carbon Neutral through Offsetters for 12 yearsThey have also been consistently dedicated to improving fuel efficiency, lowering their impactand investing in real emissions reductionsNow, they will soon be a world leader in low carbon aviation. 

The lowcarbon transition no longer means talking about how our industries will change 20 years from now. It means embracing climate planning, innovation, and technological investments todayAs aenvironmental services company, Offsetters defines success by empowering those we work with to make an impact on climateTo do our part to foster a better futurewe plan to spend the 2020s and beyond putting climate leadership at the forefront of everything we do and we invite you to do the same. This decade, it’s our only option.  


Phil Cull is the CEO at Offsetters. He is responsible for the delivery of emissions reductions from Offsetters’ portfolios and is a key member of the project development team, particularly in the high level design and quality control role. He also is responsible for the development of carbon finance deal structures, revenue sharing arrangements and manages offtake negotiations for Offsetters and its clients. Phil has been involved in project development, quality control and financing for projects both in the clean technology and land use arenas. He is a key technical review resource and leads Offsetters’ project due diligence. Phil is heavily involved in the Canadian clean tech community and regularly speaks on carbon finance at conferences on behalf of Offsetters.