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Net zero by 2050, an ever-receding target?

Provinces need to do more on energy transition, Clean Energy Canada says
Site C dam: The world would need 38,000 of these to displace global fossil fuels with clean electricity, says energy expert Vaclav Smil.

Progress on the energy transition in Canada is highly fragmented, with provinces like Quebec doing more to cut greenhouse gas emissions than provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan, according to a new provincial report card published today by Clean Energy Canada.

Another new report, published yesterday by Clean Prosperity, suggests Canada's net zero targets can’t be met without substantial amounts of nuclear power.

Meanwhile, the Fraser Institute published an essay earlier this week by Canadian energy expert and science polymath Vaclav Smil that puts the chances of industrialized economies like Canada achieving net zero targets by 2050 at close to zero -- i.e. "highly unlikely."

Federal and provincial energy transition strategies (i.e. switching from greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels to non-emitting sources of energy) are essential parts of Canada’s climate change action policies, which aim for net zero emissions by 2050, and interim targets in 2030. Canada is one of more than two dozen countries that have committed to net zero by 2050.

To achieve net zero, a country would need to remove as many GHG emissions as it produces by 2050. This will require phasing out fossil fuels and replacing them with low or non-emitting fuels like green hydrogen, biofuels or clean electricity wherever possible, and using carbon removal (i.e. carbon capture capture and storage) in cases where it’s not possible.

According to Canada’s greenhouse gas inventory, as of 2022, Canada’s total GHG emissions -- 708 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) -- fell by 7.1 per cent since 2005, and were 5.9 per cent lower than pre-pandemic levels.

B.C.’s emissions dipped from 63 tonnes CO2e in 2005 to 60 tonnes CO2e in 2015, but then increased to 64 tonnes of CO2e in 2022.

The Clean Energy Canada report notes that, when it comes to spending on the energy transition, the federal government has done most of the heavy lifting, and urges provincial governments to do more.

“Since 2016, 80 per cent of climate spending in Canada has been at the federal level, despite the fact that the federal government is responsible for roughly 20 per cent of all public spending,” the Clean Energy Canada report card says.

The report card gives Quebec top marks – A – for its support for the adoption of electric vehicles and heat pumps, and its support for a battery manufacturing industry.

B.C. gets a B grade. While it earned top marks for being “a North American leader in EV adoption,” its total score was dragged down by lower marks for “electricity planning.”

B.C. has one of the cleanest, greenest grids in North America, thanks to its abundant hydro power.

But the Clean Energy Canada report says there is “a disconnect between its climate policy and its energy system planning.

“At present, BC Hydro’s energy planning provides insufficient detail on how we plan to meet the power demands of existing climate policies, let alone those of a net-zero 2050.

“The province has been slow to procure new resources and embrace innovative approaches, such as distributed energy resources, virtual power plants, and non-hydro renewables.”

Alberta and Saskatchewan get even lower scores than B.C. Both received a D. Ontario is middle of the pack, with a C grade.

In its report, Clean Energy Canada appears to have a bias against nuclear power in its scoring for Ontario and Saskatchewan. Both provinces have energy policies that promote the use of nuclear power, which is non-emitting. Ontario's and Saskatchewan's commitment to nuclear power appears to pull their scores down.

“Although nuclear— including SMRs—may be part of a net-zero energy mix, it is crucial that provinces considering their deployment are proactively taking steps to maximize the role of cheaper and more tested options, which rely on technology largely available today,” the Clean Energy Canada report says.

Clean Prosperity’s report takes the opposite view, saying nuclear power will be crucial to meeting Canad'as net zero targets.

“Ambitious nuclear policy and ambitious climate policy are inseparable,” said Clean Prosperity director of policy and strategy Brendan Frank, lead author of the report Nuclear for Net-Zero Canada.

“Canada only needs to build more nuclear reactors if we plan to achieve net-zero by electrifying our economy. Federal and provincial governments need ambitious climate policies to convince the market that growing demand for electricity will support the economic case for new reactors.”

While federal and provincial policies may be effective in reducing Canada’s carbon intensity, the chance of any country achieving net zero by 2050 is “highly unlikely,” Vaclav Smil says in his recent essay.

“The goal of reaching net zero global anthropogenic CO2 emissions is to be achieved by an energy transition whose speed, scale, and modalities (technical, economic, social, and political) would be historically unprecedented,” he writes.

“What is particularly clear is that (in the absence of an unprecedented and prolonged global economic downturn) the world will remain far from reducing its energy-related CO2 emissions by 45 percent from the 2010 level by 2030: for that we would have to cut emissions by nearly 16 billion (tonnes) between 2023 and 2030—or eliminate nearly as much fossil carbon as the combined emissions of the two largest energy consumers, China and the USA.”

He notes that, since the first international climate agreement – the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 -- the use of fossil fuels globally has increased, not decreased.

“Despite international agreements, government spending and regulations, and technological advancements, global fossil fuel consumption surged by 55 percent between 1997 and 2023,” Smill writes.

“And the share of fossil fuels in global energy consumption has only decreased from nearly 86 percent in 1997 to approximately 82 percent in 2022.”

Replacing all fossil fuel energy by 2050 with non-emitting electricity would require the equivalent of 38,000 hydro-electric dams the size of B.C.’s Site C dam (1,100 megawatts), Smil estimates.

He adds: “Converting energy-intensive processes (e.g., iron smelting, cement, and plastics) to non-fossil alternatives requires solutions not yet available for large scale use."

As for costs, Smil estimates that achieving net zero by 2050 would cost affluent countries “at least 20 percent of their annual GDP.”

(Editor’s note: Since this story was published, Clean Prosperity has changed the wording of a quote from its landing page. The original quote was: “Ambitious nuclear policy and ambitious climate policy are inseparable.” That has since been changed to "Ambitious nuclear policy doesn’t make sense without ambitious climate policy". Clean Prosperity says it did not intend to suggest that nuclear power will be crucial to meeting net zero goals.)

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