The race to transform the world’s energy system to make it cleaner and greener is well under way, but while Canada is making some progress, there’s a long way to go.
In its most recent Insight Report this year, the World Economic Forum ranks Canada 19th out of 120 countries on its Energy Transition Index. The index looks at countries’ current energy-supply systems and how ready the different countries are to make the transition to supplies that emit less or no greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which contribute to climate change.
Countries doing better than Canada in energy transition tend to be those that are diversifying their mix of energy sources, have strong institutional and regulatory frameworks to achieve change and are open to innovative new technologies, the forum’s report says.
Canada has set a goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, with an interim goal of reducing emissions to 40 per cent to 45 per cent of 2005 greenhouse-gas levels by 2030.
The Canadian Climate Institute, which reports on progress to the government, said in April that in 2021, the most recent reporting period, Canada’s emissions declined only 8.4 per cent from 2005 levels.
Experts differ on what Canada should do next to speed up the energy transition. They agree on several points, though – it’s going to require a lot more co-operation, creativity and commitment to investment and timelines for Canada to reach both its 2050 net-zero goal and its interim targets that are only seven years away.
“The transition is a challenge, but it’s also a huge opportunity if we can get it right. To do that, we can’t just set targets without understanding the pathways to reach them,” says Sonya Savage, senior counsel at BLG law firm in Calgary and a former Alberta energy minister.
“We have to step back and understand: What will it cost? Who’s going to pay for it? Do we have the technology [for energy transition] already or do we have to develop it and scale it up to commercialize it?” she says.
For Keith Brooks, programs director at Environmental Defence, a national not-for-profit watchdog group, there is a clear path ahead. “Fundamentally, the energy transition is about phasing out fossil fuels and replacing them with zero-carbon electricity. We’ll need to electrify everything we can, with zero emissions.”
“Canada is doing some good things; having the federal [net-zero] goal is a start and programs to encourage switching from gas-powered vehicles to electric ones are helpful. The regulations to encourage transition aren’t strong enough yet, but we’re moving in the right direction,” he says.
But phasing out all fossil fuels isn’t realistic in a country with large oil sands deposits and billions invested in the oil and gas industries, Ms. Savage says.
“We’re a big country with diverse, different sources of energy. Alberta is an oil and gas-producing province, but we’re also the leader in building new wind and solar capacity in Canada. Even with renewable energy, you need to have a baseload of reliable power because wind and solar power are both intermittent,” she explains.
The need to work together
To help meet Canada’s net-zero targets, Ms. Savage says industry and the federal and provincial governments need to work together to support technologies such as carbon capture and underground storage (CCS), which buries the carbon produced by fossil-fuel extraction.
Alberta has invested $1.24-billion over 15 years in projects that have already captured 11.5 million tonnes of carbon. “There’s an opportunity to decarbonize everything, but these things are expensive and we’re competing for financing CCS projects with the United States, where there is some US$360-billion in government incentives available,” Ms. Savage says.
At the same time Ottawa’s relationship with the provinces on environmental regulation has become more complicated by a court challenge launched by Alberta, which went to the Supreme Court of Canada. The court declared the federal government’s environmental impact assessment law unconstitutional; the law had allowed it to review the environmental and social effects of resource and infrastructure projects.
Capturing carbon from the oil and gas industry only addresses part of Canada’s problem, Mr. Brooks adds. There’s plenty of carbon emitted now from peoples’ cars and trucks and from heating and air conditioning their homes and workplaces.
“Canadians need incentives to convert to heat pumps (which exchange hot and cold air according to the seasons instead of burning fuel to change the temperature) and to switch to electric cars and trucks,” he says.
There are some federal programs to help consumers, but only British Columbia, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces have incentives for electric vehicles. Canada’s biggest province, Ontario, does not. “Ontario wants to be at the forefront of building electric vehicles, yet it doesn’t make it easy to buy them,” Mr. Brooks adds.
Goodwill, innovation and investment
One of the biggest steps that everyone can take toward a smoother energy transition is to co-operate more, says Jacob Sadikman, partner and co-chair of the energy group at the Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP law firm in Toronto.
“There’s a lot of goodwill and innovation and there’s capital available, and we’re better off if everybody is willing to try to work together, with existing industries, new technologies and realistic regulations that encourage transition,” he explains.
“An all-or-nothing approach isn’t helpful. There are going to be bumps in the road, but the best thing the public can do is to challenge our leaders to come up with practical, realistic policies that don’t polarize people,” Mr. Sadikman adds.
“At the end of the day, we’re all in this transition together.”