02/07/2013 05:49 EST | Updated 04/09/2013 05:12 EDT

Can Canada Reduce Greenhouse Gas by 80%?

industrial smoke from chimney...

A new survey of some of the world's leading low-carbon energy research shows that Canada can realistically set course for an 80 per cent reduction in its energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050.

The study, released in late January by the Trottier Energy Futures Project (TEFP), shows that the 80 per cent target would also be transformative: to hit the mark, Canada would need a clean energy boom on a par with the increase in fossil fuel consumption that followed the Second World War.

The 80 per cent reduction is a key milestone. According to climate scientists, it's the minimum target for industrialized countries to avoid the worst effects of runaway climate change. But 80 per cent will be a particular challenge for Canada, the only oil exporter among the eight countries surveyed, where the jobs created by oil and gas production helped hold off the worst effects of the 2008 economic crash.

Canada Has Lots to Learn

You can learn a lot by looking at how different countries answer the same tough, important question. When it comes to cutting energy consumption and slashing energy intensity -- the amount of energy it takes to produce a unit of economic output -- it turns out that Canada has a long way to go to catch up to Europe.

The Trottier Project study, "Low-Carbon Energy Futures: A Review of National Scenarios," reviewed GHG reduction models from eight countries. It turned out that those countries fell into two categories. On the more energy-intensive side, we reviewed studies for Australia, Canada, and the United States. In the more efficient corner, we found Finland, France, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

The comparison showed that:

  • Some European countries already have per-person greenhouse gas emissions that are half the size of Canada's, with the same or better standard of living.
  • The low-carbon scenarios for those countries point the way to a further 80 per cent GHG reduction by 2050.
  • If the European countries follow a low-carbon path, their emissions intensity in 2050 will be 90 to 95 per cent below Canada's today.

Yet all the studies concluded that "deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are technologically feasible," the Trottier report states. "The net costs and economic impacts of such a transition would be small compared to the baseline cost of the energy system and the overall projected size of the economy."

How to Get There

All the national scenarios relied on a familiar set of carbon reduction options that have been discussed for many years, and are gradually taking shape in clean-energy strategies around the world. In all eight countries in the study, deep GHG emission reductions will depend on:

  • Major improvements in energy efficiency
  • Greater reliance on electricity for heating, personal transportation, and some industrial processes
  • A transition to low- or zero-carbon electricity sources
  • Wider use of biofuels.

"Low-carbon futures are invariably futures with high levels of technological efficiency of fuel and electricity use," the study notes. But while a fossil-fueled energy system can reduce its GHG emissions by operating more efficiently, an 80 per cent GHG reduction depends on a much bigger payoff: by reining in our overall demand for fuel and electricity, we make it possible for low-carbon, renewable energy sources to supply most or all of the energy we need.

That means Canada won't get anywhere near the 80 per cent target unless it adopts efficiencies that European economies take for granted. But it shouldn't be painful to make the transition. The "negawatt" craze was built on the understanding that the cheapest unit of energy is the unit you never use, and the dollars saved by investing in energy efficiency go straight to the bottom line.

And once energy demand is brought under control, low- and zero-carbon electricity sources take on a more prominent role. "Carbon-free, renewable electricity can be generated from hydroelectric, wind, geothermal, photovoltaic, biomass, wave, or tidal energy," the report states. While most of the studies cited hydro and wind as the most promising renewable electricity sources, the Snowmass, Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute also foresaw a major role for photovoltaic (solar) cells and concentrated solar power plants.

A Prosperous Route to a Low-Carbon Future

Low-carbon and green energy advocates have argued for years that there's no trade-off between the environment and the economy -- and climate-charged disasters like Hurricane Sandy show that a strong economy can't survive a wrecked environment. But there's still a nagging belief that we can't have it both ways -- if we want jobs and economic growth, climate and other environmental priorities will have to take a back seat. Or so the story goes.

The assumptions built into the national scenarios tell a different story. All the studies factored in economic growth of 0.5 to 1.5 per cent per year, within range of standard economic forecasts, and all but one of them allowed for modest population growth.

That means a low-carbon energy future can also be a prosperous future -- which is exactly what we should expect if businesses, households, and governments do what it takes to get the same work done at less cost. If you spend more on fuel, electricity, or anything else to get a certain economic result, that isn't prosperous. It's wasteful, and the waste goes straight to your triple bottom line -- economic, environmental, and social.

Decarbonizing an Oil Exporter

So what about the oil and gas industry at the heart of Canada's economy?

"Of all the countries included in this review, Canada is the only net exporter of petroleum," the TEFP report notes. "Even if domestic demand for fossil fuels (outside the fossil fuel industry itself) were reduced to zero, there would still remain the question of how much petroleum the country would produce for world markets, and with what carbon intensity."

The oil and gas industry is funding research on ways of either capturing the carbon it emits or putting that carbon to good use. But in the national scenarios, carbon capture and storage (CCS) was "treated as a contingency against the possibility that fossil fuel combustion cannot be phased out through energy efficiency measures and carbon-free alternatives."

Decarbonizing fossil fuel production is just one of 11 challenges the Trottier Project has identified on the road to a low-carbon energy future. In the months ahead, we'll be working on a set of scenarios that show what an 80 per cent carbon reduction would look like for Canada, and how to get there.

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