It Takes A Village To Grow An Economy And Cut Emissions

Welcome to Navigating Net Zero: COP26 Series. Navigating Net Zero is JWN Energy’s framework for curating conversations and content related to Canada’s climate opportunities and challenges in a transition to a low-carbon economy. In this special series in advance of COP26, we have asked nine individuals to reflect on where Alberta and Canada fit within a global climate leadership nexus and offer perspectives on navigating collaboratively. Today, Steve MacDonald, chief executive officer of Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA), explains that COP26 is a pivotal opportunity for countries, corporations, and civil society to bet big on innovative technologies that will lead to meaningful reductions in global emissions while adding value to the global economy.

The wisdom embedded in the famous African proverb about the role of community to help raise a child is a sentiment equally relevant to the efforts to transform the global economy to deliver a zero emissions future.

As the world has recognized, the net-zero challenges and the timelines to achieve this goal are too big and complex for one investor, one industry, one government, or one country to tackle alone. We must act together as a global community to reduce our emissions and mitigate the worst of climate change.

We know that technology and innovation are key to addressing the damaging impacts of changing weather and climate on the economic and physical welfare of humankind. The good news is that some of the most promising technologies the world needs are currently being developed and deployed in Alberta. The province is turning ambition into action.

Take, for instance, renewable energy. From wind and solar to geothermal, there are multiple pathways to producing reliable, low-emissions electricity. For example, Calgary-based Eavor Technologies is producing baseload power through a first-of-its-kind geothermal system, using the natural heat of the earth essentially like a giant rechargeable battery. Beyond pilot-stage funding provided by the government of Alberta through Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA), they recently confirmed US$40 million to help with scale-up and commercialization of the technology.

Many jurisdictions around the world are pointing to hydrogen as key to meeting their net-zero targets. Alberta is no different. In fact, the province is well-positioned for success because it has one of the lowest production costs in the world, a vast network of pipeline infrastructure, and a highly skilled workforce. In fact, the federal government and Alberta government recently signed an MOU with Air Products in support of a $1.3 billion hydrogen plant being built in Edmonton.

Carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) is another technology that will be a game changer globally. Not only does it play a role in reducing emissions from hard-to-decarbonize industries, it also lays a foundation to create new economic activity, new jobs, new industries and markets like hydrogen.

Alberta is a world leader in accelerating CCUS technologies. Consider the $20-million NRG-COSIA Carbon XPPRIZE, the Alberta Carbon Conversion Technology Centre (ACCTC), the Alberta Carbon Trunkline, and ERA’s own $35-million Grand Challenge: Innovative Carbon Uses. These initiatives are moving the needle toward a lower-emissions economy.

CarbonCure, a co-winner of our Grand Challenge, and its innovative technology solution that reduces emissions in the cement industry, is now used in more than 400 concrete plants around the world. This validates ERA’s and Alberta’s ability to both identify and fund the most promising technologies to reduce emissions, strengthen the economy, and create job growth, globally.

Creating a circular economy will also play an important role in our collective drive towards net-zero. This includes capturing the value of resources, not only downstream through recycling and recovery, but also in the upstream stages of the product lifecycle. Alberta is advancing new, expanded, and circular pathways in petrochemical manufacturing and CO2 conversion to value-added products. It is also finding new uses for its current infrastructure by looking into the potential of using abandoned oil and gas wells for geothermal energy development and using its pipeline network to transport alternative fuels.

Innovation in agriculture also holds enormous promise in mitigating the impacts of climate change. Feed additives developed in Alberta are reducing enteric methane emissions in cattle by up to 90 per cent. This is significant. Between beef and dairy, there are more than 3.5 million head of cattle in Alberta — that’s over 40 per cent of Canada’s national herd.  

Forestry is also driving needed innovation. In Alberta, drones are being piloted to reforest hard to reach areas more efficiently from the air, while pulp and paper companies are capturing waste heat to generate green power to fuel cleaner operations.

Over the past decade, in our efforts to identify and accelerate the technologies needed to ensure Alberta’s continued success in a low-emissions future, ERA has learned that finding a promising technology is not enough. The best ideas do not instantly turn into the products or companies that reduce emissions or deliver the energy sources of the future. You need complete solutions. Solutions that incorporate innovation in policy, financing, supply chains, business models, partnerships, and even culture.

The world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a powerful reminder of the need for aligned action, trusted leadership, and robust systems to respond to global challenges. Technology and innovation have been applied to everything from food service to vaccines on the path to deliver a “net-zero case load.” But discovering a new vaccine, for example, was not a complete solution. The world needed to de-risk and scale-up production, unlock financing, create new supply chains, implement adaptive policies, and build public confidence.  

These complete solutions are the same conditions for success we need to put in place for the energy transition the world is pursuing. We can build on the lessons learned from the pandemic response to successfully navigate the more frequent and accelerated disruption we will continue to face as the climate changes.

ERA’s focus on pulling all the pieces together is delivering results. We have invested over $820 million to unlock $6.6 billion in projects that improve the cost and carbon competitiveness of Alberta’s economy. More than 42 million tonnes of GHG reductions will be delivered through over 220 projects by 2030. Imagine the potential impact on global emissions when these technologies are adopted across sectors and around the world.

We do need to look across timescales and across industries. We need to achieve near-term reductions by broadly adopting the technologies that exist today: energy efficiency initiatives, electric vehicle infrastructure, energy storage. We also need nature-based solutions in place to protect carbon sinks and avoid the release of stored emissions. And we must look to emergent technologies, innovations like CCUS, that have enormous economic potential but are not yet developed at a scale large enough to make an impact.

Just like anything that is nascent, innovation needs support at the beginning. The challenge is to identify the technologies that will stand on their own two feet over time; the business case has to be there in order to scale-up. That’s why government support is essential in the early days, to get the world to a self-sustaining economic solution for reducing carbon emissions. This can include strategic funding support, incentive programs, policy clarity and regulatory certainty, and procurement decisions.

Specifically, with game-changing technologies, up-front capital costs can often restrict project development, so government funding — as well as capacity building and technical support — can help ensure these pilot projects are feasible. What’s important is that funding needs to be flexible and responsive: it needs to be redirected if projects aren’t progressing and carried over multiple years for projects that are.

COP26 is a pivotal opportunity for countries, corporations, and civil society to bet big on innovative technologies that will lead to meaningful reductions in global emissions while adding value to the global economy. COVID has also taught us that the world is more connected and the pace of change more rapid than it has ever been. The effort required to reach our climate change goals is monumental and the race to emerge stronger in the next normal will be relentless, so we need to be very purposeful with our actions.

We are not facing a single challenge. Rather, it is an accumulation of challenges. And time has become our enemy. We need to move fast and go far. We need to cast a wide net. We must imagine, innovate, invent, and invest, across the board. Bringing together a village of complete solutions is our best opportunity for raising the future we need.

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