Turning the calendar to 2022 notches Canada closer to its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Although one major Canadian bank believes the target is affordable and achievable in this time frame, some analysts suggest that Canada faces nearly insurmountable economic and practical hurdles on this path, which they note also has enormous downsides.
Ian Lee, a business professor of 33 years at Carleton University, says most environmentalists who tout the net-zero goal have not done the kind of homework he demands of his students.
“Show me the money, show me the data,” Lee said in an interview.
“It’s not that I’m against the idea of decarbonization. That’s not my point at all. It’s that people are shouting slogans: ‘Decarbonize!’ and ‘Net zero carbon 2050!’ And nobody says, ‘OK, how are we going to get there and what numbers are involved?’ It’s just sloganeering. It’s not evidence-based.”
An October 2021 report by RBC Economics suggested that a $2 trillion investment could get Canada to net zero by 2050. This would require annual spending of at least $60 billion, much more than the estimated $15 billion the federal government currently spends.
Despite substantial efforts already made, Canada’s carbon dioxide and equivalent greenhouse gas emissions have grown from 602 million tonnes in 1990 to 730 million tonnes a year based on 2019 figures, the most recent dataset available.
The federal goal is to reduce emissions to 500 million tonnes by 2030 and then to eliminate or offset the rest by 2050 via new technologies like electric vehicles, new heat sources for homes, and new processes to capture and store some of the emissions that will continue to be produced.
To reach net-zero 2050 starting from the 730 million tonnes annual figure, RBC estimates that current policies and trends will cut 199 million tonnes, “tech innovations and behavioural changes” will cut 183 million tonnes, with the remaining 348 million tonnes to be cut via “strategic opportunities” in seven areas: electricity, oil and gas, buildings, transportation, heavy industry, agriculture, and waste and other industries.
Emissions cuts in the electricity and the oil and gas sectors are the most essential for achieving net zero, and RBC says Canada will need to double its electricity supply in order to power the nation, specifically from hydro, nuclear, wind, and solar sources, at a cost of some $5.4 billion a year, or a total cost of more than $150 billion between now and 2050.
Although efficiencies might reduce energy demand, this may also be offset by Canada’s growing population requiring greater amounts of electricity.
According to Natural Resources Canada, Canada consumed 11,489 petajoules (PJ) of energy in 2017, with more than half (52 percent) consumed by industrial use, followed by transportation (23 percent), residential (13 percent), and commercial (12 percent) use. Refined petroleum products were the largest fuel type consumed in 2018, accounting for 4,713 PJ of the total consumption. Natural gas accounted for 4,076 PJ and electricity 1,916 PJ, with the remaining 783 PJ from biofuels and other sources.
Based on Lee’s assessment, Canada would have to replace three-quarters of its fossil fuel-powered energy supply with “green” electricity to meet 2050 net-zero goals. The Darlington Nuclear Generating Plant, built for $23 billion in 2020 dollars, generates 70 petajoules annually, based on 2017 output figures, an amount less than 1 percent of Canada’s fossil fuel-based energies.
“How are we going to generate [that much power]? One hundred Darlington plants? One hundred? We haven’t built a new nuclear power plant in 25 years,” Lee said.
“Now we’re talking about having the grid deliver three or four or five times more electricity [than] before. That means we’ve got to augment the grid.”
‘It Is Likely That Society Will Need to Be Coerced’
An October 2021 study by University of Victoria economist G. Cornelis van Kooten for the Fraser Institute said that, in order to achieve the 2030 emissions-reduction targets, it would require 28,340 wind turbines or some 30 nuclear power plants to be built before then. The renewable option would cost between $16.8 and $33.7 billion annually, though the nuclear option would cost half as much. Costs related to the purchase or rental of land, construction of transmission lines, disposal of hazard wastes were not included.
Staggering battery capacity would be required to store power to compensate for the inconsistency of wind and solar. Van Kooten estimates that the Alberta grid alone would require a battery that covered between 1,000 and 10,000 hectares, the higher end figure being equivalent to 14,000 soccer fields.
“The challenge of reducing emissions is enormous, with the transition to a carbon-free economy unlikely to occur within the next decades, let alone by 2030. Even then, it is likely that society will need to be coerced into making the sacrifices necessary to even come close to meeting CO2 emissions-reduction targets,” van Kooten wrote.
Despite being the world’s tenth largest carbon emitter, Canada contributes just 1.6 percent of the globe’s emissions, something Lee says should prompt the government to take a different approach.
“Some people got quite upset when I [said imagine] some asteroids came in from outer space and obliterated Canada. Obliterated it—not one single human being left. … In terms of global warming, [no-one would] notice. We are a statistical rounding error at 1.6 [percent],” Lee said.
Enormous Resources Required
According to a 2020 Manhattan Institute study by Mark P. Mills, it takes 20 wind turbines occupying 25 square kilometres of land to replace a single 100 MW natural gas-fired turbine. Making solar, wind, and hydro power facilities requires at least 10 times as many tons of raw materials mined, moved, and converted as would a natural gas-powered site that delivers the same amount of energy.
Mills writes that a single 100 MW wind farm would require 30,000 tons of iron ore, 50,000 tons of concrete, and 900 tons of non-recyclable plastics for the large blades. For solar, the tonnage in cement, steel, and glass is 150 percent greater. A utility-scale storage system for a 100 MW wind farm would require at least 10,000 tons of Tesla-class batteries.
The International Renewable Energy Agency forecasts that under current plans, solar garbage will constitute double the tonnage of all global plastic waste by 2050. Decomissioning a 20-turbine wind farm singlehandedly produces four times as much non-recyclable plastic trash than all the world’s (recyclable) plastic straws combined, and the International Energy Agency expects more than 3 million tons of unrecyclable plastic turbine blades to fill landfills each year starting in 2050.