Clean Energy Canada | We can kick the carbon habit. Here’s how.
July 23, 2014

Huge white smoke from coal power plantIt’s July, it’s gorgeous out and 2050 feels like a long, long way off.

Maybe that’s why a recent report on our global low-carbon future landed with barely a ripple in this country. But its findings should be required reading for anyone interested in Canadian climate and energy policy.

A heavyweight team of experts, headed by economist Jeffrey Sachs, produced the new Pathways to Deep Decarbonization analysis. The UN-backed project asked research teams from 15 countries to come up with scenarios that could chop much of the carbon pollution from their respective economies by 2050.

The Canadian team, for example, had to find a way to whack Canada’s carbon pollution by nearly 90 per cent between 2010 and 2050.

Why make such a drastic cut? By now, most of us know we need to curb our greenhouse gas pollution to address climate disruption. Fewer people have heard about the scale of the cuts required to live up to the goal that virtually all countries — including ours — have adopted, which is to keep global warming to 2°C or less.

We’ve already released a huge amount of carbon pollution through decades of burning fossil fuels and a lot of it is still up there, so there’s very little room left in our budget. The report puts it more elegantly, but the bottom line is that we need very deep cuts.

The Canadian team — researchers from Navius Research and Carbon Management Canada — rose to the challenge. Their scenario whacks emissions from electricity, transportation and buildings by more than 95 per cent between 2010 and 2050. Meanwhile, our GDP grows by more than 200 per cent.

Like so many great recipes, it turns out that the recipe for a low-carbon future is surprisingly simple. All of the project’s 15 participating countries — a list that includes China, the U.S., the U.K., India, Brazil and Mexico — took the same three steps:

1. Cut energy waste as much as possible (who could argue with that?).

2. Clean up the electricity supply, which means relying far more on solar, wind and hydro and a lot less on coal and natural gas.

3. Replace fossil fuels with clean electricity. Rather than filling up with oil, we would drive electric cars. Electric heat pumps, not natural gas, would keep us warm in winter.

As the report points out, “decarbonizing electricity production is essential, since it is a precondition to reducing emissions throughout the rest of the economy through electrification.”

Canada already sources most of its electricity from low-carbon hydropower, but the analysis still anticipates massive growth in wind and solar. According to Pathways, in 2050 they’ll provide 27 per cent of Canada’s electricity generation — a huge step up from the two per cent they provide today.

Clean power isn’t the only winner in the Pathways scenario. Providers of clean transportation, biofuels and energy efficiency solutions come out on top, too. In other words, many of the 700-plus companies that make up our $11 billion clean technology sector today would see a very rosy future.

Interestingly, the Canadian researchers also found that oil and gas production in Canada could grow substantially from today’s levels — albeit with much, much stronger emission reduction technologies in place than the sector uses today.

That conclusion rests on the assumption that global demand for oilsands product will remain strong even after the world takes strong action to cut carbon pollution — which is by no means a given. The authors acknowledge that the “literature conflicts on whether production from the oilsands can be cost-effective in a deep decarbonization scenario.”

By design, Pathways doesn’t specify exactly which policies and technology participating economies must embrace. It isn’t about about “picking winners,” the document says, but about “making sure the market has enough winners to pick from to achieve cost-effective low-carbon outcomes.” So while the authors don’t know exactly which technologies will come out on top, they do know those solutions need to produce far less carbon pollution than the ones we rely on today.

Despite that approach, the analysis makes some of Canada’s choices very clear. Powering our economy with clean electricity means bringing more wind, solar and hydro into the mix. It also means investing in the kind of modern grid, power storage and transmission that make a bigger role for wind and solar possible. And we won’t see companies make scaled-up investments in cleaner operations without a meaningful carbon price signal.

Strange as it may sound, sorting out the policy details probably would be the easy part. The tougher challenge this analysis faces is getting Canadian decision-makers — particularly those focused on election cycles — to view a 2050 assessment as having any relevance at all. It doesn’t help that our federal government has effectively dropped the national 2050 target it once proposed.

But for companies hoping to build new energy infrastructure — like transmission lines, power plants and, yes, pipelines — 2050 is well within their projects’ lifespans.

The Pathways analysis shows that when we decide what to build today, we need to understand which path that choice moves us along — the one that leads to a safe climate and a clean economy four decades from now, or the one that heads in the opposite direction.

When you think of it that way, 2050 doesn’t feel very far off at all.

This article originally appeared on iPolitics.