Cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 80% by 2050 is one of the most significant challenges Canada will ever take on.
Fossil fuel production and consumption account for 82% of Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and those emissions are among the world’s highest per capita. To make the transition to a sustainable energy system, the country will have to use energy much more efficiently and rely much more heavily on low-carbon or carbon-free energy sources.
A different kind of scenario
But while energy efficiency and alternative energy sources are priorities in any response to climate change, a deep, sustained reduction in greenhouse gases calls for a different kind of emissions reduction scenario.
Existing technologies can reduce GHG emissions by 20 to 50%. An 80% reduction target is another story. The solutions will still be technological. Cost-effective implementation will still be essential. But the deeper target goes beyond a focus on efficiency and clean energy production, into the realm of the underlying designs and technologies that give rise to energy demand in the first place. It leads to questions like:
- How the layout of our cities supports walking, biking, and transit, or requires more travel in personal vehicles
- How homes are sited and designed to minimize energy use
- How industries work to minimize shipping, or to produce the highest-value goods for the least energy intensity.
The 80% target
Using a “business as usual” or reference scenario to project historical trends into the future, Canada would produce more than 700 million tonnes (megatonnes, or Mt) of carbon dioxide in 2050. So an 80% reduction target would mean eliminating more emissions than Canada currently produces. Standard emissions projections show continuing growth in the oil and gas and transportation sectors, and addressing these pressures will be the key to discovering how a low-carbon scenario can work for Canada.
The Trottier Energy Futures Project’s mandate is to map out a future energy system that is both low-carbon and sustainable. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but they aren’t identical: With the possible exception of energy efficiency, no low-carbon technology can be considered entirely sustainable, after fully accounting for its life cycle impacts.
Leading thinkers like Dr. John Robinson, executive director of the University of British Columbia Sustainability Initiative, see sustainability as an “emergent property of a conversation about the kind of world we want to live in.” That means sustainable energy can only be defined based on the behaviour of the system as a whole. Here are some of the key features that would distinguish a sustainable energy system:
- No generation of waste or toxic substances
- Renewable supply sources that are diverse and distributed
- Fair sharing of risks and benefits across regions, communities, and generations
- Resilient systems in which the vulnerability to any single failure is minimized, and the system as a whole can easily recover from shocks
- Embedded social values that favour socially benign technologies and align with the sustainability principles of equity, human welfare, social justice, and self-determination.