Exploring Low-Carbon Energy Transitions in Canada: Natural Resource Staples, the Carbon Trap, and Innovating from a Hydroelectric Base

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Haley, Brendan L. M.




This dissertation explores the broad question of how to understand and promote low-carbon transitions given Canada’s historic and geographic context. An introductory essay provides commentary on the dissertation as a whole, establishes the general context for detailed research within three articles, and offers final reflections. The essay outlines the linkage between fossil fuel dependence and natural resource exploitation; Canada’s regionally segmented energy landscape, and the role of regional politics in public policy; as well as lessons from debates concerning innovation and industrial policy. It also discusses methodological choices and a theoretical framework combining insights from the emerging literature on sustainability transitions and Canadian scholarship in political economy. Core research contributions are found in three published articles. The first article uses the staple theory of Canadian natural resource exploitation to define the problem of carbon lock-in. It outlines the carbon trap as a new pitfall of resource dependency in the 21st century, relevant to Canada. The next articles consider potential low-carbon transition pathways stemming from hydroelectric resources, based in the province of Québec. The second article of the dissertation examines how hydroelectricity shaped the development of an electric vehicle innovation system. The third article explores factors that encourage complementary interactions between wind and hydroelectric technologies. Québec shows promise of avoiding the problem of truncated innovation, which can be associated with overreliance on a natural resource. The wind and electric vehicle cases demonstrate the potential for the hydroelectric regime to encourage the development of a wider system of low-carbon technologies. With respect to evading the carbon trap, a final reflection on the dissertation highlights a need for future research on the potential for low-carbon technologies to evolve from crude oil based systems, given the regional nature of Canadian politics and the importance of geographic and sectoral contexts in socio-technical transitions. The search for these low-carbon configurations within the crude oil system can be informed by lessons stemming from the hydro cases concerning the role of technological interactions in fostering transitions. Furthermore, the need for differentiated strategies targeted to Canada’s various sectoral and geographic circumstances reinforces the relevance of a transitions policy approach.


Political Science
Economics - History




Carleton University

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Doctor of Philosophy: 

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Thesis Degree Discipline: 

Public Policy

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Theses and Dissertations

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