Navigating in a net zero world: a Canadian view

Welcome to Navigating Net Zero: COP26 Series. Navigating Net Zero is JWN Energy’s framework for curating conversations and content related to Canada’s climate opportunities and challenges in a transition to a low-carbon economy. In this special series in advance of COP26, we have asked nine individuals to reflect on where Alberta and Canada fit within a global climate leadership nexus and offer perspectives on navigating collaboratively. Today, Brad Hayes, a director of the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources, discusses Canada’s net-zero ambitions.

Canadians across our vast land are talking about how our country and its citizens should navigate the 21st century energy transition, with the goal of drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Some have suggested that the world can reach “net-zero” emissions by 2050 — which is indeed an ambitious goal. It means we would be faced with profound and rapid changes to how we live our lives in every nation of the world, as greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels supply more than 80 per cent of the energy used in the world today.

If we want to proceed toward net-zero emissions targets, we must create plans to actually achieve them. There’s been lots of talk, but specific plans to engage specific technologies and projects to reach the goals — to assess, conceive, plan, promote, finance, design, permit, build, test, and put them onstream — have not been laid out on even national or regional scales, let alone globally.

From my perspective as a Canadian resource industry worker taking Canadian knowledge abroad to support other countries in developing their resources, I’ve seen that GHG emissions are not a high priority in many nations. Instead, they desperately need more energy to achieve the security and lifestyles we enjoy in Canada. People in India, Pakistan, China and many African nations want to develop their own coal, oil, and gas resources as the quickest and most effective pathway to energy security. Recently, natural gas has gained favour because it’s relatively cheap and available as LNG, and creates much less pollution (and greenhouse gases) than coal.

So we’re dealing with an issue that is absolutely global in scope, but which is a high priority only in those nations with secure modern energy supplies. That’s a big challenge when looking for global solutions.

Let’s leave global scope aside and return home — how do we drive a modern economy like Canada’s to drastically reduce GHG emissions, achieving net-zero by 2050? We’ve already got a pretty good start — hydroelectricity produces well over half our electrical power, and about a quarter of our total energy supply. But vast areas of the country — the Prairies, much of the North and the Maritime provinces — do not have good hydro resources. We have good wind and solar resources in some places, plus some geothermal and tidal energy potential. Can we create a reliable, affordable electric grid with those resources, displacing coal-, gas- and diesel-fired electrical generation that sustains many Canadians today?

I believe the answer is probably yes — if Canadians see the net-zero goal to be beneficial and affordable, are willing to make the financial and lifestyle sacrifices, and allow enough time to actually create the hardware and infrastructure. There are encouraging signs — the Muskrat Falls and Site C hydro dams are being built, new wind and solar is being built, and coal-fired generation is being shut down (replaced largely by natural gas).

But our net-zero ambitions must include electrifying huge segments of the economy currently powered by fossil fuels — transportation (cars, trucks, planes and railways), home heating, cement and steel manufacturing, and other industry — meaning we’ll need to build much more electrical generation capacity, and quickly. That won’t be easy — new hydro and nuclear take at least 15 years to permit and build, and little is in the works. In Canadian climates, wind and solar are niche players that can contribute to an established electrical grid up to a certain point with today’s technology. Energy storage to support intermittent renewables is in its infancy, although there are lots of ideas being discussed and even piloted.

So zero emissions across Canada by 2050? Even a cursory look at the logistical, financial and engineering challenges tells us that is not going to happen. It’s only 29 years away. Even if we dedicated huge dollops of money, ignoring other societal priorities and our burgeoning national debt — it’s not going to happen. You can’t have a baby by conceiving twins and waiting 4 ½ months. Just spending money doesn’t ensure the right innovations happen, or that stakeholder concerns and construction timelines can be drastically reduced.

OK — but we’re not talking absolute zero emissions for Canada, we want net zero. Can we legitimately offset some of our emissions to make the net zero equation work? Certainly! For example:

  • Canada can ship liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Asian and European markets to replace the coal they burn now for electricity — resulting in very large global emissions reductions.
  • We can leverage our world-leading engineering skills to capture CO2 emissions and repurpose them to create products, or permanently sequester them thousands of metres under the ground.
  • We can increase carbon uptake in natural areas, such as by planting trees and better managing the land.

At the end of the day, reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions will be a complex and long-term mission. There are no magic bullets — the answers will lie in using the best methods available to suit the circumstances. Tidal power might help in Nova Scotia, but not Alberta. Solar energy will contribute in Medicine Hat, but not in Norman Wells. Numerical goals such as net-zero must be set with consideration of what we can possibly accomplish in the real world, with its competing priorities, various interests, financial constraints, and evolving technologies. Deciding that we must be at net zero by a certain date before considering how to get there is a mission doomed to failure.

Finally, let’s remember that we’ve been talking only about Canada. We have a rich and diverse economy, and if our citizens will vote for the net-zero mission once they’ve become aware of the costs and sacrifices, we can make great strides in the coming decades. Remember though — Canada’s emissions are less than two per cent of the world’s total, and less wealthy countries with different priorities will not be pursuing the net zero objective as aggressively as we can.

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