Canada is ‘stuck at the starting gate’ of global decarbonizing megatrend

We need to bridge the “say–do gap” today to meet our 2030 targets, panellists at Earth Index launch say

Canada will have to double the generation of clean, renewable electricity over the next eight years and dramatically accelerate the electrification of transportation and heating of buildings to meet international commitments to battle climate change, the head of research at Corporate Knights says.

“The race to net-zero will be a defining feature of the 21st-century global economy, but Canada’s climate change response is absolutely stuck at the starting gate,” Ralph Torrie told a webinar on December 1.

“The share of our electricity supply provided by clean, renewable power is stagnating when we need it to be galloping forward, and the share of fossil fuel use in our total energy is stalled when we need it to be declining dramatically.”

On December 1, Corporate Knights launched an Earth Index, in which it will track the two key elements of long-term decarbonization: scaling up the use of non-fossil energy on the grid and electrifying transportation, buildings and industry, which currently rely on oil and natural gas. A webinar coincided with the release of a white paper by Torrie on the details of the index.

The Earth Index is based on a scale of one to 100, with each of the two elements accounting for half the score. Based on 2019 data, Canada now sits at 43 on the scale and needs to get to at least 80 by 2030 to reflect a pathway that is consistent with its commitment to be net-zero by 2050.

The share of renewable power on the grid – mostly hydroelectricity but also wind and solar – is currently at 64%, while the resulting electricity provides just 22% of Canada’s total energy use. Torrie did not include nuclear power in his basket of fossil-free electricity, saying the Earth Index is aligned with the European Union’s definition of “clean” – which excludes nuclear.

In the webinar, Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said the federal government is determined to close the yawning gap between commitments on climate change and the action needed to meet the pledges. He said the Earth Index is a positive approach to tracking progress.

“We’re no longer talking about whether or why we need to take action on climate change but how we can get this done,” he said. Guilbeault added that the effort must be done with equity partnership with Indigenous Peoples and increased stringency of carbon pricing in the power sector.

The index represents an important tool to help ensure government actions move beyond the “say–do gap” to reflect their commitments, said Severn Cullis-Suzuki, executive director of the David Suzuki Foundation. She pointed to a recent report from Canada’s Environment Commissioner that highlighted 30 years of missed opportunities for meaningful climate action.

One key factor will be ensuring that Canada’s provincial energy regulators are aligned with the net-zero goals of decarbonizing the electricity grid and switching from fossil fuel use to electricity in transportation, buildings and industry, said WaterPower Canada chief executive Anne-Raphaëlle Audoin.

She noted that hydro accounts for 60% of Canada’s electricity supply and more than 90% of its renewable output. “We are envied around the world by countries that don’t have access to this renewable hydro power,” she said.

To get to a score of 80 on the Earth Index by 2030, Canada will need to see a doubling of renewable power generation by 2030, or roughly 10% per year over the next eight years. Torrie estimates such an effort would require investment of between $30 billion and $40 billion per year over that time frame.

That includes growth in interprovincial transmission capacity to connect provinces with enormous hydro capacity, such as British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec, with those that are phasing out coal but continue to rely on natural gas, such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia.

The grid will also have to accommodate an expansion of electric vehicles and the use of electricity to heat buildings and power industry. However, investments in greater energy efficiency would reduce the need for greater electricity supply.

Torrie said the investments are already occurring as part of a reinvention of the electricity sector.

“This transformation is a global megatrend and is the centrepiece of the multi-trillion-dollar economic opportunity represented by the transition to sustainability,” he said in the white paper.

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