Technologies exist to help Canada realize a low-emission energy system: CCA report

Mark Henderson
November 2, 2015

A new export panel report on Canada's options for implementing a low-emission energy system concludes that climate change-inducing emissions can be cut between 60% and 90% using commercially available technologies and without jeopardizing the country's competitiveness and long-term economic growth. The finding was among several key conclusions by the Expert Panel on Energy Use and Climate Change and is the first expert assessment in the CCA's history to be sponsored by the private sector, namely Magna International Inc.

Entitled Technology and Policy Options for a Low-Emission Energy System in Canada, the report was released immediately following the election of the Liberal Party and just before the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference which will unfold in Paris November 30 to December 11. According to panel co-chair Dr Keith Hipel, the timing was no coincidence.

"Solutions need to be economy-wide and the Paris conference will introduce new cutback levels," says Hipel, a professor of systems design engineering at the Univ of Waterloo and president of the Royal Society of Canada's Academy of Science. "We were delighted to have a private sector sponsor because we need all sectors involved to address this challenge."

The report was produced from conception to completion in one year — a far shorter period than typical CCA expert panel reports — and at a relatively low cost of approximately $250,000. The panel focused primarily on Canada, collecting and analyzing recent synthesis reports such as those produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Global Energy Assessment.

Magna approached the CCA about conducting an assessment last fall, motivated by "growing frustration among Canada's business leaders over a lack of clarity about energy technologies and climate change, as well as policy options to address the latter", according to the report.

The agreed-upon assessment was intended to provide: an overview of Canada's energy system; an analysis of different energy sources and technologies that could lead to low-emission energy systems and related opportunities and challenges; public policies to support the transition; and, a characterization of how evidence "can inform the policy and investment decisions that will shape the development of Canada's energy system in the coming decades".

Although the report stresses that a low-emission energy system can be achieved with existing technologies, that doesn't preclude the need for further R&D and innovation, particularly for relatively high-cost options such as carbon capture and storage (CCS).

"The report relies on peer-reviewed work which shows there are no technological barriers but for some options the cost is prohibitive," says CCA program director Andrew Taylor,head of the expert panel's assessment team. "There's still a need for R&D and innovation to bring costs down."

A case in point is the Boundary Dam CCS project near Estevan Saskatchewan. It has run into serious design problems and is only running at 40% capacity after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on its construction.

It's estimated that fossil fuels contribute to more than 70% of greenhouse gas emissions totalling 32 gigatonnes annually and rising, making oil and gas a primary focus of any emission reduction initiatives. Fossil fuels also account for 72% of Canada's energy supply, although the ratio varies widely from province to province. Ontario, for example, relies heavily on non-greenhouse gas emitting nuclear power, while Quebec and British Columbia get the majority of their energy from hydro. Alberta is the province most heavily relying on fossil fuels for energy generation and would likely be most heavily impacted by system-wide emission reductions.

Canada's massive supply of hydroelectric energy is seen as key to achieving significant emissions reductions, but much energy generation continues to rely on coal or natural gas. CCS is viewed as a potential contributor to reduction efforts but it's unlikely to be a major player until costs can be significantly reduced.

The panel observed that the most promising options for efficiency gains can be found in the transportation, building construction and industry sectors.

Technologies are a key aspect of emissions reduction but the report points out that policy and regulation also play an integral role. The panel concluded that mandatory yet flexible policies are imperative.

"Stringent, compulsory, economy-wide emission reduction policies are ... essential if Canada is to successfully undertake an energy system transition. Carbon taxes, cap-and-trade systems, and other regulations are all possible approaches," states the report. "Regardless of the instrument, certain design features can improve performance of such policies across a range of criteria."

"Volunteerism doesn't work and evidence shows that," says Hipel. "Compulsory regulations are being considered internationally, not just for Canada ... We need a level global playing field since we don't want industry moving to jurisdictions with less regulation."

Hipel points to BC's carbon tax, which has produced significant emission reductions since its introduction in 2008 but adds that any new policy must take a systems approach that covers all of Canada.

"We need a policy that encompasses all regions," he says. "Canada is in a good position to meet our aspirations in Paris and keep costs manageable through the right combination of stringent yet flexible policies."


CCA Report Main Findings

1) Canada could achieve major emission reductions with the adoption of commercially available technologies — Improvements in energy efficiency can result in early gains and provide a foundation for the cost-effective introduction of low-emission technologies, but deeper emission reductions will require energy substitution and potentially the application of CCS in conjunction with continued fossil fuel use. Taking advantage of existing technologies in these areas and across the transportation, building, and industry sectors could result in emission reductions on a large scale.

2) Low-emission electricity is the foundation for low-emission energy systems — Many Canadians live in jurisdictions that already benefit from low-emission electricity. Future emission reductions will require a transition in provinces that still depend on emission-intensive electricity sources such as coal, as well as expanding low- and non-emitting generation in all provinces to meet growing demand.

3) A transition to a low-emission energy system is achievable with the right combination of stringent and flexible policies — Stringent, compulsory, economy-wide emission reduction policies are essential if Canada is to successfully undertake an energy system transition. Carbon taxes, cap-and-trade systems, and other regulations are all possible approaches.

Other News

Events For Leaders in
Science, Tech, Innovation, and Policy

Discuss and learn from those in the know at our virtual and in-person events.

See Upcoming Events

You have 1 free article remaining.
Don't miss out - start your free trial today.

Start your FREE trial    Already a member? Log in


By using this website, you agree to our use of cookies.
We use cookies to provide you with a great experience and to help our website run effectively
in accordance with our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.