2020 will forever be etched into our minds as the year that felt like a decade – a global pandemic that halted economies and took far too many lives far too soon, social unrest as institutions faced a reckoning around systemic racism, perhaps the most consequential US election in recent memory, all while the world continued to burn with the Northern California skies wrapped in a blood orange glow.
The pandemic is a global short-term shock with impacts that are felt by everyone. There’s a strange comfort in knowing that we’re facing similar challenges and a shared, albeit bleak, experience. By contrast, climate change is a long-term burn with gradual and delayed effects that will persist for generations to come. The impacts of climate change we face today are the result of decades past of GHG emissions. In fact, studies show that continued emissions from committed fossil-fuel energy infrastructure account for more than the entire carbon budget that remains if global warming is to be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In other words, unless massive capital investments, decommissioning of existing fossil-fuel based electricity generation, and a ban of new fossil-fuel plants are implemented – we may have already failed to reach our targets.
Thankfully in Canada our electricity generation is relatively clean as we are blessed with an abundance of hydroelectricity, continue to implement solar and wind, and have developed a robust nuclear sector. In Canada 52% of annual GHG emissions come from two sectors – oil & gas and transportation. These sectors are extremely difficult to decarbonize through electrification alone. We can’t out-efficient our way out of these emissions, we need fundamentally new technologies to address these sectors.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently released their 2020 Energy Technology Perspectives report which analyzed over 800 technology options to examine what would be needed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 – a goal that the Canadian government has publically announced. They found that transforming the power sector alone would only get us one third of the way to net-zero emissions. When people think of clean technologies, they think of renewable electricity generation like solar and wind – even if we were to completely transition the world’s economy to renewable power generation, this would only get us 1/3rd of the way there. Renewable electricity cannot decarbonize entire economies alone.
The next generation of clean technologies must address these gaps – primarily heavy industry and resource extraction. For Canada, this is particularly salient for the west. There are thousands of chemical engineers, technicians, pipefitters, and oil & gas workers in Alberta who are facing disruption amid cratering demand due to the pandemic. Growing up in Windsor, I know all too well what happens when a community is dependent on one entire industry and when that industry experiences a downturn. In 2008 my father was laid off from Ford as many automotive plants in the city closed – he’s never found a job with a comparable salary or benefits since. It’s unrealistic (and frankly a bit insulting) to assume that we can diversify and retrain a massive workforce by teaching them how to code. For many industrial workers, these jobs are their livelihood and identity. I spend much of my time thinking about how we can ensure a transition to a low-carbon economy in a dignified and fair way – a way that lets people feel pride in what they do.
There are two technologies that can both transition Canada to a low-carbon economy and utilize the unique skills and assets of Canada’s industrial workforce.
The first is hydrogen, which has gained momentum in recent years as the fuel of the future. When combusted, the only emission from hydrogen is water. Canada has been a leader in hydrogen technologies for decades and the federal government is set to release its national hydrogen strategy this fall. Advanced economies like Germany and Japan have already signaled their investment into hydrogen in a significant way, and both of these countries will likely need to import hydrogen to fuel their economies – representing an opportunity for Canada to become a global hydrogen exporter.
The second promising technology is carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS). As a species we got ourselves into this mess by taking fossil fuels from underground, combusting them to extract energy, and then pouring the leftover carbon in the form of CO2 into the atmosphere. Logic (and mass balances) would suggest that the only way to get ourselves out of this mess is to capture the carbon in the atmosphere and then store it underground where it came from. Again, Canada has a strategic advantage here with world-leading firms like Carbon Engineering (direct air capture) and Svante (flue gas capture) leading the charge.
Both of these technologies rely on the same skills as the existing oil and gas industry. They require massive machines and plants with pipes, fluids, heat, and energy flows controlled in complex ways. The destiny of hydrogen and CCUS are intertwined in more ways than one as the future of emissions-free hydrogen in Canada depends largely on CCUS.
To sum up so far – renewable electricity generation is not enough to get us to net-zero, transportation and oil and gas are by far the biggest sectors and hardest to decarbonize, hydrogen and CCUS could be a uniquely Canadian solution that presents a massive opportunity. So how do we capitalize?
While these technologies hold great promise, much of it is pre-commercial. The IEA Energy Technology Perspectives report showed that about half of the technologies needed to reach net-zero are in the lab or at prototype/demonstration scale – highlighting the crucial role for research, development, and innovation.
At the National Research Council of Canada I run a $57M collaborative research program called the Materials for Clean Fuels Challenge Program, focused on disruptive technologies to lower the cost of hydrogen and CCUS. My program has three main thrusts, CO2 conversion, clean hydrogen production, and artificial intelligence for materials discovery. At the heart of these technologies are materials such as catalysts and membranes that enable the transformation of CO2 or the production of hydrogen. We need new materials to disrupt these sectors and we don’t have the luxury of time that traditional R&D demands (20+ years to go from discovery to market). This is why we’re also building AI-powered self-driving robotic laboratories to help us accelerate this discovery. Working with Natural Resources Canada, we’re building a new facility in a Mississauga focused on these autonomous materials acceleration platforms (MAPs). We can’t do this alone which is why we’re collaborating with 20 world-leading research groups from academia and exciting start-ups in Canada, Germany, the UK, and the US to tackle this mission. This model of mission-driven focused collaborative research is exactly what Canada and the world needs to reach net-zero.
The pandemic has shown how quickly the world can mobilize to address a common threat. We can learn much from this urgency to tackle the next existential threat we face. Only by working together can we accomplish our goals, and what better place to start than collaboration in science, technology, and innovation. We are, after all, all in this together.