Skip to main content
Are you okay? Emergency/Crisis UOIT Home

Making of a miracle – Canada’s approach to carbon-free energy

Posted by Daniel Hoornweg on March 10, 2016

If Canada is to come anywhere close to meeting the challenge of being net carbon-free by 2050, we cannot wait for miracles.
If Canada is to come anywhere close to meeting the challenge of being net carbon-free by 2050, we cannot wait for miracles.

Last December the world got a better understanding of the enormity of our energy challenge. In the year leading up to the Paris meeting, the Conservative Government of the time promised a 30 per cent reduction from Canada’s 2005 emissions levels by 2030. 

Canada, represented by the newly elected Liberal Government along with 196 parties, went well beyond those targets and agreed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to limit global warming to less than two degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels (and humans started aggressively burning coal and oil). The recent first ministers’ meeting in Vancouver reiterated these targets, yet the ministers failed to reach meaningful agreement, effectively delaying a Canada-wide approach to significant carbon reduction by at least a year.

The December 2015 COP21 targets require zero net carbon emissions by 2050. The ‘aspirational goal’ of limiting temperature increases to 1.5oC require global net carbon emissions to be zero by 2035. This is all to take place as the world’s cities double in size by 2050 (more than doubling global energy demand) and the 1.2 billion people who do not have access to secure energy today receive at least a modicum of energy supply.

If these goals are pursued, without a doubt this is the largest task to ever have faced Canada, and the rest of the world. Many seeing the enormity of this challenge have called for an ‘energy miracle’. Even with a few miracles these targets are very optimistic. The planet will be lucky to avoid temperature increases above 3oC or even 4oC by the end of this century.

With its globally very high relative per capita energy use, and major exports of energy (oil and gas from the Prairies, British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador (NF); hydroelectricity from Quebec and NF; uranium and nuclear technology), Canada needs to be fully engaged in global energy discussions and programs. Everyone seems to have an opinion about energy in Canada and these opinions often conflict as people pursue different objectives. The first order of business however must be an honest reckoning of what the targets and agreements are – and how far we are from achieving them.

Some of Canada’s energy challenges:

A big challenge in developing an energy plan and necessary public policy is estimating how fast Canada will de-carbonize its energy system, and how fast the rest of the world will do the same. How fast will renewables (like wind and solar, and hopefully geothermal and some biofuels) come on stream? Building pipelines or liquid natural gas (LNG) ports may be a moot point if the world actually reduces its use of fossil fuels at the pace needed to meet agreements signed in Paris.

Canada’s overall economy is mostly an urban story – our cities now drive as much as 80 percent of our economy. Yet historically, and very much in the eyes of foreign currency markets, we are a resource economy. Our resource economy is inextricably linked with the United States and to a lesser extent, Mexico. Of course we need a continent-wide energy plan, but Canada’s energy planning needs to be as much about making our cities low carbon as it is about exporting energy. Canada’s export of energy is also an urban story; all that oil and electricity we sell is going to power the world’s cities, all of whom are trying to reduce their use of energy.

The parochialism of provinces vying for benefit continues. B.C. wants to sell hydroelectricity to Alberta; Alberta wants pipeline access to the Pacific Ocean (as well as through Quebec to the east). Some provinces want the more efficient carbon tax, others want the more interventionist cap-and-trade, and others want any price on carbon deferred. Provinces must come together; energy and economy is a threat and opportunity to all regions of the country.

Landform is the largest driver of carbon emissions. Sprawling communities lead to more vehicles per household and more travel, as well as more energy needed to heat and cool larger homes. Many municipalities across Canada derive much of their revenue from land development. This development is often biased toward typical subdivisions. To reduce carbon emissions our cities, especially our suburbs, need to be built very differently.

Budget woes: In order to stay on this side of that planetary boundary of no more than two degrees Celsius warming, the total world’s carbon emissions cannot exceed a total budget of 850 Gt. Around the world we’ve already used more than 65 percent of that budget (at the current rate the budget will be used up by 2030 – a Gt is 1 billion tonnes; 1000 kg). Per person, Canadians have emitted about ten times more carbon than the global average. Now Asia and soon Africa want to grow rich and use energy like we do. Therefore countries like Canada need to make even larger cuts to emissions. Globally the world needs to get below about three tonnes of CO2 emission per person per year (Canada is now over 20 tonnes per person, Alberta is a whopping 70 tonnes per person – the highest in the world).

The second budget woe is that the federal government and most provinces are operating under deficits. This fiscal deficit basically borrows money today to pay for current operating costs (let alone proposed new investments). Our children are inheriting an enormous carbon and fiscal debt, severely limiting their future options.

Another aspect that so far has been left out of the GHG emissions debate in Canada is vicarious or Scope 3 emissions. These are emissions associated with activities that take place outside the country. The emissions associated with food grown in say California, or televisions manufactured in China. As the world rushes to meet strict carbon targets these emission will grow in importance, especially as cities assume larger global roles (advanced cities tend to track their Scope 3 emissions much more closely than countries). Canadians will increase awareness of all their emissions – e.g. those from driving to work, flying for holidays, and associated with their strawberries in January. Canadians, asked to reduce carbon emissions at home, will also be watching the rest of the world, complaining loudly if emissions (and jobs) are simply moved from Canada to another jurisdiction.

Some of Canada’s energy opportunities:

Canada’s three largest cities have among the lowest carbon-intensity electricity in the world. With Ontario phasing out coal, and Quebec and B.C. blessed with plentiful hydro-electricity, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver can market themselves as ‘clean cities’. Together they might also be able to better catalyze electric vehicles and reduce trucks and SUVs.

Every country will be severely impacted by climate change. The Arctic with its reliance on year-round ice and locked-in permafrost is particularly vulnerable to warming climes. Globally however the impact of climate change will vary markedly by geography. Closer to the equator, drought and heatwaves are already increasing. Overall Canada is one of the best-positioned countries to weather climate change this century. With relatively plentiful fresh water and expansive northern latitudes, Canada should expect to be called on to take in more environmental refugees and ensure agricultural output.

Canada has a chance to emerge as a world leader in low-carbon urban mobility. Electrified transportation – starting with trains and personal vehicles, and starting this in our three largest urban areas is an enormous opportunity. Mobility as a service is emerging – and the goal in our larger cities should be to encourage more travel (people moving and meeting each other is the most effective way to enhance economic development). An integrated approach is needed: ridesharing software; municipally ‘blessed’ forms of Uber; rapid transit corridors (with trains buses and HOVs); large targeted fleets of electric vehicles – as much as possible made and serviced in Canada.

On the personal vehicle front, EVs will help usher in self-drive cars, which will probably require some degree of separation between smaller cars and SUVs and trucks in excess of say, 1,600 kg from certain areas (and times) in the more congested areas of cities. This switch in energy is costly – we should maximize any potential benefits that can come with the effort. For Canada we need a few key spinoffs. One is an urgent need to increase productivity and employment.

Over the last 25 years the number of cars in Canada has remained roughly the same, but heavy-duty diesel trucks and pick-up trucks and SUVs have more than doubled. These new vehicles are the fastest growing segment of Canada’s carbon emissions. Collisions between cars and SUVs/trucks are taking a disproportionally large toll on life and limb of car-drivers. To encourage continued movement to smaller and lighter cars (which reduces carbon emissions) while discouraging movement to trucks and SUVs (which cause far more damage when involved in collisions) greater road segregation, scheduling, and lower speed limits for trucks is likely to emerge, especially in urban areas. Hoping for the price of fuel to rise is not enough. Preferential routing of busses and ride-sharing vehicles is also likely to emerge.

Embrace heat pumps – larger buildings in Canada should at least be partially heated and cooled through ground source heat pumps. This should be the case in Quebec and B.C. as well even though they are blessed with enormous amounts of relatively cheap hydroelectricity. However this electricity should be used to reduce transportation emissions and sold to adjacent provinces and the U.S. where coal is still being used for electricity generation.

The merit of nuclear energy is another issue that keeps popping up, especially in Ontario. In a carbon-constrained world, nuclear energy is a powerful ally (nuclear energy worldwide has reduced by the equivalent of more than two years of global GHG emissions, more than any other technology). Ontario was able to wean itself off coal because of the availability of nuclear power. But nuclear is perceived by many as risky and the issue of waste remains. This gets us back to the need for pragmatism, and haste.

No energy option is without risk and challenges. Renewable energy presents concerns from people opposed to wind turbines, massive areas flooded behind dams, and eventual waste disposal of solar panels. Even conservation, the holy grail of energy management, has a downside. Nowhere is this more evident than Alberta – our economies are structured such that when people buy less of our energy, the lost revenues mean deficits and cuts to programs like education and health. True, we need to get to carbon-free energy, but getting there will not be easy. As a country we have already signaled that we will fundamentally change our economy and way of life by being carbon-free by 2050, less than 35 years away (most power systems are designed with longer lives that this). We should have got started in earnest several decades ago – the next-best option is to start today.

First and foremost, as a country we need to have a shared, yet disaggregated vision that reflects the disparities across the country as well as our good fortune relative to much of the rest of the world. The most difficult aspects of the changes needed for a low-carbon Canada are not technical; rather they are community acceptance and public policy, and courage. First and foremost, our miracle requires cooperation across the country and an honest reflection of how large a task we have ahead of us.

As Bruce Cockburn sang, ‘history takes a long long time, trying to set the angel in us free, while we’re waiting for a miracle’. If Canada is to come anywhere close to meeting the challenge of being net carbon-free by 2050, we cannot wait for miracles. The scale of this challenge and the time frame to address it are so severe that we need to respond to with pragmatism and passion, but mostly with speed.

Filed under: Sustainability 101

University of Ontario Institute of Technology logo