Carpe diem, Canada

Robert Hornung | March 15, 2021

We can mitigate climate change, but only by putting wind, solar and energy storage at the centre of a comprehensive clean-energy transition, starting today.

I have been advocating for actions to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions for more than 30 years, primarily from within the environmental community and as a representative of renewable-energy industries. While we can point to some real progress in that time, the pace of change has been wholly inadequate. We are slowly walking into a climate catastrophe when we should be sprinting to do all we can to mitigate it.

Canada’s average temperature is increasing twice as fast as the global average and the signs of a changing climate are everywhere: our permafrost is melting, our coastal sea levels are rising, our snow-cover patterns are changing, and our weather is becoming more extreme, with floods, droughts, and intense storms on the rise.

We are already seeing serious impacts on our ecosystems, communities, infrastructure and economies, and things are currently on track to get much worse.

Under the Paris Agreement, Canada has committed to reducing its GHG emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and has joined more than 120 other nations in pledging to reach net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. We have also made a clean-grid target, aiming to have 90 percent of Canada’s electricity coming from non-emitting sources by 2030 and 100 percent before 2050.  

Targets are one thing. Results are another. Despite the measures taken to date, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions have remained relatively stable since 2005, at more or less 700 Mt per year, getting no closer to our Paris target of 524 Mt.

In December 2020, CanREA welcomed the federal government’s new plan, “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy,” as an important step forward on the path to net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, but it is critical that the new proposals identified within the plan are translated into concrete actions that deliver meaningful results starting in 2021.

So how do we get there?

Meeting Canada’s 2030 and 2050 greenhouse gas emission reduction targets will be challenging, but it is clearly doable.

The Canadian Institute for Climate Choices recently released a report examining 60 different potential pathways for Canada to get to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. They conclude that existing “safe bet” technologies can get us most of the way to 2030 and much of the way to 2050 – although some of a broad range of potential “wild card” technologies will also be required to fully complete the job.

While there are important differences between the scenarios, they all rely on a significantly expanded, non-emitting electricity grid to get us to net-zero.

Fortunately, Canada is better positioned than most countries to build a strategy around this cornerstone. Doing so requires action on three fronts.

1. The first step is to clean up the electricity supply.

In Canada, 82 percent of our electricity system is already non-emitting. The remaining 18 percent—and significantly more—can easily be supplied by Canada’s massive untapped renewable energy resources.

We need to ensure that all new electricity generation is enabled through competitive processes and market signals that seek to deliver the most affordable, non-emitting generation.

Halkirk Alberta Wind Farm. Photo: Capital Power

The cost-competitiveness of wind and solar energy will make them a key focal point for such new investments, while additional investments in interprovincial transmission and energy storage will help to ensure reliability.

President Biden has said the U.S. will move to decarbonize its electricity grid by 2035. Canada has the potential to meet a similar target and should accelerate its efforts to decarbonize the grid, while also working with the U.S. to allow Canadian clean-electricity exports to help them achieve their goal.

2. Step two is transitioning away from fossil fuels because cleaning the grid is not nearly enough.

We can have the cleanest electricity in the world, but until we electrify transportation, heavy industry and heating, we will not substantially reduce the bulk of our country’s GHG emissions.

Currently, electricity supplies 16 percent of Canada’s energy needs. The remaining 84 percent is supplied largely by fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal). Luckily, there are tremendous opportunities to use electricity to service many of these energy needs.

The transition should start with transportation. There have been many positive signals on electric vehicles in recent months, including commitments by automakers to shift production to electric vehicles, growing purchases of such vehicles by consumers, and increased investments in electric vehicle-charging infrastructure.

In addition, we have seen commitments to ban the sale of gasoline cars: by 2035 in Quebec and by 2040 in British Columbia. All of these promising initiatives must now be brought together in a comprehensive federal–provincial strategy for the electrification of passenger transportation.

Similar strategies will ultimately be required for the electrification of heavy industry and buildings. Governments are correctly focused on improving energy efficiency within existing building stock, but it is critical that such retrofits also explore opportunities for energy self-supply, through the on-site production of electricity, such as rooftop solar.  

3. Step three will be to produce a lot more electricity.

Studies, like those undertaken by the Trottier Institute, the UN’s Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, and Transition Accelerator, have consistently found that Canada’s current electricity system will need to double or triple in size by 2050 to address climate change.

To significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, there will be increased demand for clean, non-emitting electricity to power electric vehicles, electric heat pumps, and new, innovative industrial machinery in sectors like the aluminum industry.

Such a build-out will take time and we need to start planning today for the electricity grid of 2050 if we are to be successful.

Global leadership

Canada has an opportunity to become a true global leader when it comes to the energy transition. We have a competitive advantage provided by our abundant renewable energy resources, and we are well positioned to build on this advantage: Cleaning and significantly expanding our non-emitting electricity grid will do much of the heavy lifting required to reach net zero by 2050.

There is no reversing climate change, but by working together across all sectors and provinces, we can slow it down to keep its impacts at a more manageable level while ensuring opportunities for all Canadians.  

We have a fleeting opportunity to avert a catastrophe for our children and grandchildren. We need to seize it. Today.

Carpe Diem.

This is the third article in a series about CanREA’s Vision, exploring why wind energy, solar energy and energy storage, working together, will be at the core of Canada’s energy transition. I have so far argued that these technologies represent the most affordable path forward for Canada’s electricity system while also offering many important economic benefits, such as good stable jobs and investment in rural communities. Clean power also represents the core of Canada’s efforts to combat climate change, the most significant environmental challenge of our time. In my next Vision Blog, I will explore how wind energy, solar energy and energy storage, working together, can help create the best possible future for Canadians by empowering consumers.