The challenges we face require a differentiated approach based on regional needs and resources, says Phil De Luna
Canada’s reliance on inexpensive sources of energy has rapidly grown since the Industrial Revolution. This cheap energy has fueled our economy, increased our standard of living, and made Canada a prosperous and wealthy nation. However, with increasing energy usage comes a far greater cost — an intensification of rising CO2 emissions and anthropogenic climate change. The world has been aggressively warming over recent years with the warmest 6 years recorded in history all falling after 2016 – 2016, 2019 and 2020 being the top 3.1 Moreover, Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.2 The economic, societal, and health implications of climate change are massive — impacting every facet of Canadian life.
To combat this, the Canadian federal government has made clean energy and low-carbon technologies a priority through the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, a plan to transition Canada to a low-carbon economy.3 However, projections from the Senate Committee on Energy, Environment and Natural Resources suggest that by 2030, without disruption in the form of an economically viable alternative technology that encourages early adoption, Canada will achieve only a 2% reduction in GHG emissions from 2005 levels.4 Comparison with the Paris Climate Accord commitment of 30% reduction by 2030 reveals the stark reality and demonstrates just how important and urgent the need for a disruptive solution to fossil fuel alternatives really is.
Because Canada’s energy mix differs from many other developed economies, the mix of opportunities for impact on emissions reduction also differs. For example, the replacement of coal- and gas-fired power grids with renewables, provide easy emissions reductions but introduces intermittency and seasonality problems.
Urban and rural emissions
The contrast between rural and urban emissions is also stark. Energy needs are much different coming from the rural or urban perspective. Rural emissions are dominated primarily by the agriculture industry, transportation emissions due to sparse population densities, and personal electricity consumption. For example, 10% of Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are from crop and livestock production.5 In contrast, urban emissions are dominated by buildings, manufacturing, and industrial emissions. Approximately 8% of the world’s GHG emissions come from the production of cement to make concrete — the most abundant man-made material on earth.6 As cities grow and skyscrapers rise, these emissions will only increase.
Despite these differences in sectoral emissions across rural and urban jurisdictions, both are intricately linked as part of Canada’s energy system. As the population of Canada continues to urbanize, rural Canada feeds these populations. Transportation of food from rural Canada is crucial. In fact, transportation emissions have increased 19% from 2000 to 2017.7 Taken together, transportation, buildings, and agriculture account for 47% of Canada’s GHG emissions in 2017.
Interestingly, one would expect that an increase in urbanization would also translate into lower GHG emissions as more would rely on public transportation and travel shorter distances. However, this increase is due primarily to a greater number of vehicles on the road. There are many factors for this — amplified trade and globalization, the growth of online shopping and shipping, and the increase in the Canadian population.
Canada’s energy infrastructure also skews towards urban rather than rural by the nature of electricity generation. Electricity generation requires massive power plants that are either powered by fossil fuels (such as oil and natural gas), hydroelectricity, or by nuclear power. These plants are localized near urban population centers, with the need for extensive transmission to rural areas — leading to increased costs for rural populations.
Remote communities have especially difficult energy challenges as they are located in areas where power lines do not exist. For example, many northern Indigenous communities rely on diesel-powered generators– which themselves lead to GHG emissions.
Regional problems need regional solutions
To add to the complexity of the situation, technological solutions for climate change and the energy transition are highly dependent on location. As an illustrative example — Manitoba, Quebec, and British Columbia have an abundance of emissions-free hydroelectricity generation whereas Alberta and Saskatchewan rely mainly on natural gas and coal power plants.
Rural communities have the space to implement renewable energies such as wind and solar whereas urban locations will undoubtedly need to rely on nuclear and hydroelectricity. The largest wind (the 300 MW Lac Alfred Wind Farm in Quebec)8 and solar installations (the 100 MW Grand Renewable Energy Park in Haldimand County, Ontario)9 in Canada are located in rural communities. This highlights the critical role that rural Canada will play in the energy transition.
The largest barrier to widespread renewable energy is intermittency. What do you do when the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow? Energy storage is the missing link, especially long-term seasonal scale storage. Batteries are useful from a day-to-day perspective, but their energy density is far too low for long-term seasonal storage. Any renewable energy installations will also need local energy storage which again will require space and land.
Remarkably, the Canadian energy transition from fossil fuel-based to solar or wind-based energy would shift the paradigm in power transmission. Rather than localized energy production close to urban centers — one could expect delocalized renewable electricity production at the wind and solar farms across rural Canada. These renewable electrons would then flow towards city centers rather than electrons from power plants flowing outwards.
Agriculture, as mentioned, is also another massive emitter of CO2 emissions. These emissions come from livestock, the disturbance of carbon sinks in soil, and manure management. Emissions reductions in this sector could be accomplished by advances in regenerative farming and more efficient agriculture technologies. Furthermore, advances in urban vertical farming and plant-based meats (which are primarily produced in urban factories) could also reduce the emissions of the agriculture sector. Similar to how renewable electricity could see a shift to the rural, agriculture and the production of foods we eat could see a shift towards the urban.
Ensuring a fair transition for all Canadians
Clearly, there are many technologies that promise to combat climate change — renewable energy, carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), bioenergy, batteries, hydrogen, electric vehicles, etc. What is important to note is that it is a combination of all these technologies bespoke to the region and the needs of a local population that will make an impact. There is no silver bullet to fight climate change.
The first step is to move to clean emissions-free electricity as fast as possible. Canada’s energy grid is relatively clean with an abundance of hydroelectricity, but more needs to be done to increase renewable capacity. This can be done by building more solar and wind capacity and by retrofitting existing fossil-fuel power plants with carbon capture to ensure that CO2 does not reach the atmosphere. Second, with an abundance of clean electricity — we need to electrify everything. This includes electrifying transportation with electric vehicles and moving from thermal or fossil-fuel-based processes to electrically driven ones. Lastly, we need to tackle the emissions that are not easily electrified. This includes the emissions from buildings, agriculture, and industry.
We, as a society, need to ensure that the technological solutions that are being developed by scientists and engineers across Canada are done so with the context of the jurisdictions and populations that they serve, that they are supported by rational policies that ensure a fair energy transition for both rural and urban populations, and that all Canadians, from coast to coast to coast, can participate and accelerate the clean energy transition.
Phil is a Clean50 Emerging Leader, and has accumulated a few other awards, as a world leading researcher, and then as the Director, Materials for Clean Fuels Challenge Program at National Research Council Canada. He has a PhD in Materials Science and Engineering from the U of T, and is presently on leave from the Federal Government, running as a federal Green Candidate in Toronto’s St Paul’s riding.