The Canadian flag, in an orange background

Decarbonisation, Electrification and Early Action: Canada’s 2050 Strategy for a Low-Carbon Economy

November 24, 2016

With COP 22 coming to a close in Marrakech last week, the Government of Canada quietly released a report titled Canada’s Mid-Century Long-Term Low-GHG Development Strategy at the conference. The report outlines the path required to reach the net emissions decrease of 80% by 2050 from 2005 levels; consistent with Canada’s commitments to the Paris Agreement to limit global temperature increase between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. This report comes alongside the launch of the UNFCCC’s 2050 Pathways Platform that has been joined by at least 22 countries, 15 cities, 17 states and 196 businesses.

Canada’s Mid-Century Strategy examines promising emissions reduction strategies, key emerging technologies, and identifies where stronger policy will be required to overcome challenging areas of deep GHG emissions cuts. The report explicitly states that it is “not a blueprint for action, and it is not policy prescriptive”. It is intended to inform the dialogue on how Canada can decarbonise its economy. The strategy is based on detailed modeling that illustrates various 2050 scenarios.
One of the main drivers behind this forceful strategy is the understanding that the cost of inaction cannot be ignored. The identified risk of inaction is threefold:

  • Increased average global temperatures will cause a cascade of related impacts, including the increase of severe weather;
  • The cost of action will likely rise in the future as the required pace of decarbonisation increases, where one study estimates that “a delay in domestic GHG policy action from 2012 to 2020 could cost Canada an additional $87 billion over the 2020 to 2050 period”;
  • With the rest of the world pushing forward to address climate change, Canada should not fall behind in emerging low-carbon global markets.

The following are the key building blocks and recommended strategies for the transition to a low-carbon economy:

  • Electrification – More than 80% of Canada’s electricity is non-emitting due to significant amounts hydro and nuclear power. As this figure continues to grow, a central decarbonisation strategy will be to transition end-use applications that currently use fossil fuels to use electricity such as cars, trucks, building appliances and heating systems, and energy requirements for some industries. Policy mechanisms suggested to achieve this include performance-based technology regulations, economy-wide carbon pricing, and financial investments for research and development of low-carbon technologies.
  • Energy conservation and electricity efficiency – “the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that 38% of the required global emissions reductions associated with a 2°C pathway could be met through energy efficiency improvements.” Higher electricity efficiency is realized through technological improvements and demand-side management measures. The modernization of electricity grids to reduce transmission losses, and changes in behaviour to consume electricity during low-demand times are some ways to improve electricity efficiency.
  • Addressing short-lived atmospheric pollutants like black carbon. Short-lived atmospherics pollutants are potent GHG’s that have relatively short atmospheric lifetimes (days to weeks) compared to CO2 (more than 100 years). Black carbon is a toxic particulate matter formed from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. In Canada, the transportation sector is responsible for 62% of black carbon emissions. There is a continual effort in Canada to further regulations that address air pollutants from vehicle emissions. The advancement of regulations to curb the emissions of other non-CO2 emissions include a recent phase-down amendment to the Montreal Protocol that will reduce hydrofluorocarbon emissions. Canada has also committed to reducing methane emissions by proposing regulations that reduce venting and fugitive emissions from oil and gas sources.
  • Proactively manage forests and land since forests are vital to the carbon cycle by sequestering carbon and reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Some strategies include policies and legislation addressing sustainable forest management to balance the multiple objectives of Canada’s forests as well as the inclusion of Indigenous peoples in planning and managing forest resources. Another strategy is the greater domestic use of long-lived wood products and use of bioenergy from waste-wood and afforestation.
  • Reducing the emissions associated with transporting people and goods. The Strategy points to the role of municipalities in zoning and permitting to facilitate the clean development of cities. As well as their capacity to uptake innovative technologies, electrify transportation fleets, and support a higher density of urban development among other strategies.

An underlying theme of this report is that most international and Canadian greenhouse gas mid-century abatement is possible with today’s technology. Although mitigation costs remain high in certain areas, the Mid-Century Strategy places an emphasis on the opportunities for Canada’s competitiveness that research, development and deployment (RD&D) of clean technology will provide. Investment in this sector is promised to create co-benefits such as high paying jobs and the stimulation of exports in both the short and long-term.

This ambitious strategy also sends a strong signal that Trump’s victory is not going to sway the federal government’s action to counter climate change. During a press conference in Marrakech, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, stated that “We’re moving forward, as is the world… I was at the major economies forum with China, the EU, South Africa, UK, Japan, France. Everyone is absolutely committed to climate action.”

Canada’s Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Gas Development Strategy stresses that decarbonisation objectives should underscore long-term planning and investments. However, it also sends a clear message that there is a crucial need for early action. The federal government deserves praise for its leadership in publishing this decisive report, and hopefully, it will light the proverbial fire under us all to put words into action.