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Canada is stuck in a state of carbon lock-in – here’s how we can reverse that

As the next cabinet is sworn in, Canada needs its policy-makers to focus on innovations that decarbonize our economy rather than lock in fossil fuels

floods climate change canada
Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta

As the dust settles on Canada’s federal  election, we can see clearly that climate change was top of mind for many voters. A summer of devastating heat waves and forest fires brought an element of urgency to the debate around the issue, as Canadians considered who to cast their ballots for.

Although Canada’s elected officials say they’re embracing that urgency, the policies adopted by various levels of government to date haven’t supported the fundamental and rapid transition needed to decarbonize our energy system.

A recent study by my research team at the University of Victoria found that policy documents of successive provincial and federal governments all say they aspire to a low-carbon energy transition. However, many policies intended to drive the low-carbon transition are actually just reinforcing fossil fuels by supporting the wrong kinds of innovations. Our research led us to the conclusion that Canada is locking itself into continued reliance on fossil fuels through policies that encourage incrementalism, rather than the transformative change we need. 

The scorecard tool we developed uses a scale of -2 to +2 to evaluate an innovation’s potential to decarbonize, democratize and decentralize energy systems. Policy-makers and investors can use these scorecards to inform their decisions about which innovations to support and which to discourage. Negative scores mean that the innovation is reinforcing the energy system’s path dependency on fossil fuels. A score of zero means that the innovation is reinforcing the status quo, and a score of +1 means that the innovation is providing incremental shifts toward reducing fossil fuel use, giving consumers more control, for example, by putting solar panels on rooftops. Innovations that receive a score of +1, however, are not transformative enough to address the climate emergency in the short timeframe that we need to. A score of +2 means that the innovation has the potential to disrupt the energy system by replacing fossil fuels, give communities more collective control over energy decisions, and decentralize energy grids.

Prepared by Yuxu Zhao and Christina Hoicka

 

Our study reached out to hundreds of policy-makers, energy and environment experts and advocates in Ontario to help us identify low-carbon innovations available to energy users. We identified more than 130 innovations offered over the last 20 years, including cooperatively owned solar panels, micro-grids, energy planning in Indigenous communities, electric vehicles, all the way down to replacing natural gas appliances and supplying new housing with natural gas. 

We also identified the policies and stakeholders that support them. We found that innovations with a high potential to decarbonize, such as electric vehicles and zero-carbon buildings, had less uptake. In contrast, the most popular economic policies support innovations that reinforce the fossil fuel regime, such as high-efficiency natural gas furnaces. For instance, Ontario cancelled both its feed-in-tariff program for renewable energy development and its cap and trade program and instead is choosing to expand the natural gas system to serve additional homes. 

We found that having the support of a wide range of stakeholders, such as policy-makers, advocates and industry, facilitates the diffusion of more innovations that disrupt the fossil fuel system. The more public discourse there is to support innovations with greater disruptive potential, the higher the possibility that policies and the instruments that support them will be developed. And if we give communities and municipalities more control over their energy systems, they are better able to deploy renewable energy and other decarbonizing innovations. 

In other words, the best low-carbon innovations decarbonize, democratize and decentralize.

We developed a scorecard tool to evaluate an innovation’s potential to decarbonize. Policy-makers and investors can use these scorecards to inform decisions around which innovations to support and which to discourage.

Canada’s state of carbon lock-in is making it hard to transition. Our policies, infrastructures, technologies and behaviours all reinforce continued fossil fuel use and inhibit the uptake of decarbonizing technologies. Many of the low-cost and commercially viable low-carbon innovations required to meet crucial greenhouse-gas-reduction targets already exist yet are being implemented much too slowly. Only four of these – solar PV, energy efficient lighting, data centres and networks, and electric vehicles – are penetrating markets sufficiently, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

A low-carbon energy transition means switching things such as heating and transportation to run on electricity rather than fossil fuels, combined with rapid and massive deployment of low-carbon sources of renewable energy. It also requires energy users – households, businesses and even public institutions – to participate in energy systems in many new ways, such as putting solar panels on their roofs or driving electric vehicles. Collectively, by adopting innovations that decarbonize, democratize and decentralize at a large market share, energy users can disrupt the energy system to propel us toward a net-zero world. 

As a Liberal minority government is sworn in in the coming weeks, it will quickly need to ramp up its greenhouse-gas-cutting policies, with the UN’s landmark climate change summit in Glasgow, COP26, rapidly approaching. Canada needs its policy-makers to respond to the climate crisis by focusing their efforts on the wide range of innovations we can harness to decarbonize our economy. But they must also take care that policies don’t work against the goal of a fossil-free transition for Canada.

Christina Hoicka is an associate professor in geography and civil engineering at the University of Victoria.

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