​How to accelerate both emission reductions and economic growth in Alberta: thought-leaders workshop

Achieving economic growth while reducing greenhouse gas emissions has become a defining challenge today. Often at loggerheads, these conflicting aims are married in the concept of “carbon productivity,” potentially aligning stakeholder interests to deliver exponential change in how hydrocarbon molecules are harnessed to create value.

“Imagine a world where greenhouse gas emissions and economic targets are met. Imagine the profound transformation that has to happen,” David Collyer, board chair of Emission Reduction Alberta (ERA), said in his introductory comments to a carbon productivity workshop in February.

The recognition that achieving this transformation will require a concerted multi-stakeholder effort, this workshop brought together 60 industry leaders, innovators, investors and government officials to explore the concept of carbon productivity—defined as the amount of GDP produced per unit of carbon equivalents (CO2e)—and to identify opportunities to improve Alberta’s carbon productivity.

Hosted by Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) in partnership with Energy Futures Lab and JWN, and sponsored in part by Capital Power and NAIT’s Industry Solutions, the event was part of ERA’s ongoing work to help the Province and Canada deliver on their environmental goals and international climate commitments.

Since 2009, ERA has committed more than $572 million to 164 projects with a total value of approximately $4.3 billion. These projects are estimated to deliver cumulative greenhouse gas reductions of 43 million tonnes by 2030.

Redefining waste

Unlike more established indicators, such as labour productivity and economic productivity, the concept of carbon productivity isn’t immediately intuitive. So the table discussions opened by delineating the term “carbon productivity.”

A common starting point was the idea of improving industrial efficiencies and reducing carbon dioxide emissions from current processes. But the discussions quickly moved to the transformative notion of a “circular economy,” where carbon waste streams become the feedstock and building blocks for new products such as graphene, carbon fiber or concrete products with sequestered CO2.

“It’s about increasing quality of life and decoupling that growth from carbon emissions,” one participant said.

But carbon productivity also raised important questions that need further work. In the context of oil and gas production, beyond reducing energy inputs to maximize energy outputs, how is carbon productivity accounted for in a product that is largely destined for combustion? How is carbon productivity quantified as a metric to compare the relative efficiencies of different products or sectors?

“We need to think about optimizing carbon in the same way we have optimized our economy,” a participant said. “How can we most efficiently use these carbon molecules? Can we apply the same idea to getting resources out of the ground in the same way as manufacturing?”

World of opportunities

The second round of table discussions comprised the core of the workshop. The table groups set out to identify the most promising opportunities for improving Alberta’s carbon productivity. The responses fell broadly into three categories:

  1. Wider application of proven carbon emissions reducing technologies
  2. Organizational innovations to reduce carbon emissions
  3. Continuing development of new technologies that reimagine carbon emissions

There are many opportunities to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by championing existing technology. An example is the use of liquified natural gas (LNG) to displace diesel consumption in industrial and mining processes. The technology already exists. Switching from diesel to LNG would not only cut carbon emissions by 30 per cent and eliminate particulates emissions, it would also improve industrial economics by lowering fuel input costs.

Similarly, efforts to displace coal-fired power generation with natural gas is underway in Alberta, but Canada could also help reduce global GHG emissions. Favourable government policy is needed for the construction of LNG export infrastructure and recognition of foreign emissions reductions resulting from Canadian exports.

Automation, artificial intelligence and other IT technologies are making Alberta’s industry more efficient. This rapidly evolving field holds much promise as the early adopters prove out the benefits.

A number of table discussions also examined how new efficiencies could be captured by integrating energy production value chains or even sectors of the economy.

“Opportunities to integrate natural resource industries, i.e., forestry and oil and gas, could lead to co-processing and identifying intermediates that could be integrated into refining products,” a participant said.

Expanding on the idea of co-processing is the idea of industrial clusters. Well underway in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland, accelerating this buildup captures additional efficiencies, reduces “molecular tourism” (the movement of raw materials to other regions for processing only to be shipped back for consumption) and promotes synergies that lead to further economic growth.

But the most exciting and most transformative potential for reframing the conversation around climate change is the development of technologies that turn carbon emissions waste streams into building blocks for new materials and products.

Leveraging Alberta’s expertise in Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage could serve as the backbone for many of these developments. Beyond utilizing CO2 in enhanced oil recover, captured CO2 could be used to in making carbon fibre, graphene, or better concrete.

Canadian-based CarbonCure Technology Inc. permanently sequesters CO₂ in concrete to make stronger and more sustainable masonry products with a lower carbon footprint. To date, the XPrize finalist (XPrize Foundation creates incentive competitions to help solve some the planet’s greatest challenges) has permanently stored 24,975 tonnes of CO2 in concrete, which is the equivalent of 29,970 acres of forestland absorbing CO2 for a year.

These are obviously early days in thinking about a circular economy that envisions CO2 as a valuable feedstock for manufacturing, but research into materials and nanostructures is bringing the transformative potential of this vision to reality.

Going forward

In the closing session, the audience was surveyed to identify the main drivers for carbon productivity in the Alberta economy. More than half of this diverse cross-sectional group cited competitiveness as the top driver, followed by creating the opportunity to develop new revenue streams.

A concluding question assessed the usefulness of carbon-productivity as a concept for aligning stakeholders in Alberta’s innovation system. The vast majority of the workshop participants found this framing concept as very useful.

“Carbon productivity is a broad term that can pull together multiple stakeholders and industry sectors,” said one participant. “There is power in pulling that wide group together. It can be very collaborative.”

The carbon productivity workshop was part of an ongoing discussion that will continue at SPARK 2019, a conference that will inspire, motivate and support a multi-stakeholder group of innovators and technology developers by connecting them with others working to advance innovative technology.