Murray McLaughlin, Bioindustrial Innovation: Canada is working on a bioeconomy strategy


Murray McLaughlin
Murray McLaughlin

“The government is working on a national bioeconomy strategy, which started with our new federal government attending the COPS meeting in Paris. Discussions and consultations are now taking place with the provinces and the Canadian public with the intent to have a federal strategy in draft form later this year.” To say it – in this long exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista – is Murray McLaughlin, executive director of Bioindustrial Innovation Canada, who was recognized in the top 100 global leaders in the Advanced Bioeconomy at Biofuels Digest Conference in Washington, 2016. With him we talk about bioeconomy in Canada, climate change, biomass, Green public procurement, carbon tax and other policies. Murray McLaughlin has held various positions in the private, government and non-profit sectors such as director of Business Development for the Canadian Light Source, president of Ontario Agri-Food Technologies, deputy minister of Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food, and president of Ag-West Biotech Inc. He co-chairs the Industrial Bioproducts Value Chain Roundtable which is a partnership between Industry and AAFC for the bioeconomy. He is a graduate of Nova Scotia Agricultural College, McGill (B. Sc. Agr.) and Cornell (MSC and PhD), and has an Honorary Doctorate Degree from Dalhousie University.

Interview by Mario Bonaccorso



Mr McLaughlin, last December at Cop21 Canadian officials said they would support a long-term goal of limiting rising average temperatures to within 1.5 C of pre-industrial levels, although 2 C remains the official target. Canada is currently committed to reducing emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. According to experts, the Canadian government must commit to converting to 100 per cent renewable energy over the next 35 years to stay below the 1.5 C mark. For a 2 C target, there would be a little more time. That means moving immediately to eliminate coal-fired power, ramp up investment in renewable energy and in the bioeconomy. How is your country planning to support the development of the bioeconomy in the coming years?

Our federal government was elected last fall and yes, have made a real committment to manage climate change and to meet our committments made at Cop21 in December. To meet the committments we will need to get legislated changes in place with both federal and provincial governments. That said committees are now established and will begin to consult and form proposed policy. Also there is a need to develop a National Strategy for the Bioeconomy that can be the template for change. From the standpoint of coal fired power plants, that is a provincial decision. However the province of Ontario has eliminated or converted their coal fired plants to wood as of 2014, and the province of Alberta will do the same by 2020. Other provinces are off coal or are currently reviewing their plans.

Which are the policies you have now in Canada to support the bioeconomy. And what is the role of provinces in this regard?

Like other jurisdictions, Canada has a biofuels mandate nationally and some provinces have increased that provincially. We also have policies regarding wind and solar power which is by provinces, as each province controls energy distributions. However, policies are about to change substantially over the next year or two. Alberta and British Columbia have had carbon tax policies for a number of years, but Canada’s two largest provinces – Ontario and Quebec – will be implementing cap and trade programs for carbon this year. Also our federal government will be recommending a program for carbon reduction. The role of the provinces in the bioeconomy is significant because they are responsible for energy and the environment.

Canada is the world’s third largest holder of oil reserves after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. It is also the third producer of natural gas at global level. How is it possible to reconcile the interests of these sectors with those of the bioeconomy?

Reconciling the interests of the Canadian petroleum industry with that of the bioeconomy is essential if we are to reach the goals being set up by our government and others around the world. I do not have a magic answer for this, but in Sarnia we talk about a hybrid cluster; hybrid systems, and hybrid products, meaning that the biobased and petroleum based industries need to work together to grow the bioeconomy and extend the life of petroleum by using less. There are no policies in place for such partnerships, but it needs to happen even without policies.
For supporting the bioeconomy we are seeing the provinces beginning to put policies in place. In Ontario, the government recently introduced their Climate Change Action Plan.
Recognizing the fact that Canada is the third largest holder of oil and natural gas reserves with the new reality of climate change and mitigation. This is obviously an interesting challenge as there is a need to also maintain jobs which drive the economy. However, I believe we will see the petroleum industry move toward better managed systems that will help manage GHG emmissions.
Sarnia, Ontario is leading the way as a petroleum community (since 1858 -almost 170 years) which has seen the growth and decline of the local industry – but has also seen the need to build a green and sustainable industry to maintain the sector, creating a hybrid cluster with a focus on C02 reductions – solar farms (largest in Canada); windmills; greenhouses which uses C02 to increase production; ethanol production (largest Canadian facility); biobased chemistry company BioAmber ( a net user of C02); Western Sarnia-Lambton Research Park with pilot facilities for start up companies that help move toward GHG reduction. Lambton College in Sarnia has established specific courses for training students in the bioeconomy as the college has identified the bioeconomy as a new growth area for Canadian industries. Sarnia is showing the way and will be a model for the future.
Today, I believe that there is finally a recognition that climate change is real and needs to be managed which also means managing our resources differently – hence a need for new science and innovation to assist.

Are there measures such as Green Public Procurement and carbon tax in the Canadian policy system?

Carbon tax in Canada has been implemented in British Columbia and Alberta. Ontario and Quebec are introducing Cap and Trade programs. These types of environmental taxes are administered provincially because each province has the responsibility for the environment in their province. However, the federal government is developing national guidelines that we should see by 2017.
Green Public Procurement is not in place in Canada, however a number of Associations are lobbying for a procurement program, so I expect to see one soon that I expect will be similar to one in the USA.

Canada has an abundance of renewable resources that can feed a wide range of bio-products. According to the Canadian Bioeconomy Network, developing your bio-potential will help unleash your national resources potential to spur future economic growth and job creation in Canada. They claim – as you mentioned before – the lack of a Canadian comprehensive bioeconomy strategy. Is the government working on a national strategy?

Yes, the government is working on a national bioeconomy strategy, which started with our new federal government attending the COPS meeting in Paris. Discussions and consultations are now taking place with the provinces and the Canadian public with the intent to have a federal strategy in draft form later this year.
The Bioeconomy Network (BEN), which Bioindustrial Innovation Canada (BIC) is a member, has been asking the government to develop a National Bioeconomy Strategy. It is good to see this starting to be developed.

Even in the absence of a strategy, Canada has shown a strong ability to attract investments by the bioeconomy companies. What are the strengths of your country?

Canada has had programs to support the sector for many years – Research and Development programs; Investment programs like our Sustainable Chemistry Investment Fund; Sustainable Development Technology Corp. (SDTC); Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) Cluster initiatives; various provincial programs such as Ontario’s Jobs and Prosperity program. Also Natural Sciences and Engineering Reserach Council of Canada (NSERC) supports academic researchers and Centres of Excellence nationally.
On the commercial side Canada has some strengths that are useful to establishing the bioeconomy – abundant biomass (agriculture and forestry); certified forests; good labour sources for highly trained trades; close to market with the USA next door; site locations for building full scale facilities and acceleration  for pilot facilities; and a strong research network across Canada that can asssist with developing technologies.
Despite the lack of strategy there has been local efforts that have proven successful in moving the bioeconomy forward – Sarnia, Ontario being one centre focused on biobased chemicals; Drayton Valley, Alberta with a focus on woody biomass; Winnipeg, Manitoba with a focus on biocomposites. are but a few centres that have been moving forward in the bioeconomy.

Canada has 348 million hectares of forest land (that’s 10% of the world’s) and 67 million hectares of agricultural land.  What role do the forest industry and the farmers play in the Canadian bioeconomy?

Forestry and agriculture will play significant roles in the development of Canada’s bioeconomy. Why? Because woody biomass will be a key ingredient in developing chemicals, biocomposites, biofuels, etc. We are already seeing strong movement in this direction with the announcemnt of Comet’s plans to build a sugar mill with the feedstock being corn stover. Innovations are working on wood to sugars and more uses for lignin.
I see biomass as the cornerstone to building the bioeconomy, and both forestry and agriculture will be key providers of it.

Without the people on board, it’s really difficult to deploy across the board everything you need to do to really de-carbonize. What is the perception of the bioeconomy by the Canadian public opinion? Are there plans for education and training?

People on board is a key ingredient of any new initiatives. We are starting to see the programs develop to provide a level of understanding. However, I believe that we are beginning to see a major part of the population understand that climate change is real and we need to be doing our part to get ahead of the issue with concrete solutions.

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