How does Canada reconcile two seemingly contradictory positions: trying to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 while at the same time supporting oil pipelines and fossil fuel exports?
Canada's National Observer editor-in-chief Linda Solomon Wood posed the question during a live discussion on Zoom with the European Commission’s director general for energy and the assistant deputy minister for Natural Resources Canada.
“I think it’s an energy transition, it’s not an energy stop and change,” Mollie Johnson, assistant deputy minister for Natural Resources Canada’s low-carbon energy sector, responded.
“If we look at the modelling that comes out of the International Energy Agency (IEA) or if we look at demand, the world is going to continue to need traditional energy sources for a number of years ... through the investments in the strengthened climate plan, like all large industrial emitters, Canada is focused on reducing their emissions intensity. And that's led by things like using our hydropower to bring more clean electricity to facilities, looking at opportunities to increase industrial energy efficiency, taking every step that you can to drive down emissions."
Johnson joined Ditte Juul Jørgensen, the European Commission’s director general for energy, from Brussels, Belgium, for a wide-ranging interview by Solomon Wood in Vancouver about how Canada and the European Union were going to reach their goals of net-zero emissions by 2050. Joined by hundreds of audience members online, they spoke at length about recent progress on climate policy and how Canada and the EU could rise to the challenge of transitioning to a low-carbon energy economy.
The challenge of transitioning to clean energy
A key part of the discussion focused on economic stability during the shift to a net-zero economy, especially given the pandemic.
"One of the things we are looking at here is how to recover the economy after this one year of COVID-19 crisis and lockdown, which is a really significant impact on our economy," Jørgensen said about the European Commission's policies. "And we have launched a recovery program called Next Generation. You and we have agreed to, all European member states have committed to spending 37 per cent of recovery-related investments on climate ... on the renovation of buildings, on powering up investing in clean energy generation, renewable energy generation in particular, investing in hydrogen."
She said shifting energy sources involved having "difficult socio-economic consequences" for countries with a high reliance on coal and fossil fuel energy, and that governments needed to create skills training so that workers were not left behind.
Johnson agreed, noting collaboration with other countries was especially important as Canada tackled climate goals amidst economic challenges.
"Global challenges like the ones we're facing, both the pandemic and climate change, require global solutions," she said. "Through our energy dialogues, we've established a true energy partnership that helps to forge these solutions."
The wide-ranging conversation circled back around two key areas: nuclear energy and 2050 goals. Johnson and Jørgensen emphasized Canada and the EU were aligned on plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and both shared plans to increase their use of nuclear and hydrogen energies in pursuit of that goal. These convictions produced two central tensions from the audience: are hydrogen and nuclear as green and safe as we need? And are Canada and the EU doing enough by focusing on 2050?
Ultimately, both Johnson and Jørgensen stressed an approach that balanced practical economic realities with necessary climate action.
During the talk, viewers jumped in with comments about reliance on nuclear power, with one writing, “(Minister of Natural Resources) Seamus O’Regan is promoting ... nuclear reactors that simply delay any real action on the climate crisis and protects [sic] the status quo of funding fossil fuels.”
Some also pushed back against the commitments from both Johnson and Jørgensen to economic growth during the climate crisis.
“The unthinking commitment to ‘growth’ is the problem!” wrote one attendee. Another queried: “Is there any discussion regarding degrowth between Canada and the EU?” Others voiced additional dissent around the joint plans for net zero by 2050, arguing that more aggressive and timely targets are necessary.
Solomon Wood forwarded an audience question on the status of nuclear as a green and clean energy to Jørgensen, who said “the jury is still out” on those designations. Jørgensen explained roughly half of EU member states use nuclear power. Each state determines its own national energy mix.
“There are many other issues and discussions around nuclear, but from a carbon emission perspective, it’s clear that it’s a neutral energy source,” said Jørgensen.
She continued, saying the objective of determining the "cleanliness" of nuclear and hydrogen was to provide transparency and clarity so as to avoid greenwashing.
Solomon Wood followed up immediately with Johnson, posing an audience question on Canada’s use of nuclear in the energy transition. Johnson cited the IEA’s claim that we currently have access to just 25 per cent of the technology required for net-zero emissions by 2050. Based on the currently available options, Johnson said nuclear produced by small modular reactors is “low-emitting” and provides a “stable baseload power source.”
At the same time, she said Natural Resources Canada is engaged in ongoing consultation on its radioactive waste policy. “We see these two things as needing to work together,” said Johnson. “It’s part of the mix because we’ve got to have all of the options on the table as you’re moving forward.”
Quoting an audience question near the end of the event, Solomon Wood asked: “Is 2050 soon enough?”
Jørgensen responded: “If we don’t know where we’re going, we’re never going to arrive there.”
Johnson added: “We need to be practical and we need to be achievable … We need to put in the work every month, every year and every day.”