To ward off the worst impacts of climate change, Canada has committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. That means in less than three decades the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) being released into the atmosphere from all sources of emissions — buildings, industry, transportation and so forth — must be no greater than the GHGs being removed.
The challenge is that almost everything we do to heat, cool and power our society and feed people emits greenhouse gasses. What we need is a fundamental transformation of how we live in this world.
According to Carleton University researcher James Meadowcroft, this is not an unrealistic goal — as long as government, business and civil society organizations work together, across sectors and regions.
The former is crucial because cutting emissions must happen differently in every sector; reforming transportation, for example, isn't the same as changing agriculture. Regionality matters because Canada is so vast and geographically diverse.
Hastening the Move to Net-Zero
To help hasten this transformation, Meadowcroft, who focuses on energy and climate policy, has become one of the research directors of The Transition Accelerator, a charity whose mission is to convene "innovators, progressive industry, researchers and other key groups into collaborative teams that advance Canada down … pathways to a stronger, net-zero future."
The Accelerator, established in 2019, is concentrating on several areas that it deems ripe for change: electrification and grid integration, building decarbonization, electric vehicle market penetration and hydrogen.
The group believes that by meshing climate mitigation more closely with other national goals, including improved health and the creation of new economic opportunities, it's possible to move toward net-zero while building a better Canada.
Zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs) are a good example of how The Accelerator operates.
The organization sought to develop a deep understanding of how the ZEV industry works, what its future could be and what steps must be taken to get there. Then it brought together a collection of willing partners to develop practical on-the-ground projects that will realize these changes.
This led to the launch of a national ZEV supply chain alliance, which aims to help transform the Canadian automotive industry — and its more than 500,000 direct and indirect jobs — into one that's poised to succeed in the global ZEV marketplace.
"This is a sector in which people realize they need to start adapting so they're better situated for the future,” says Meadowcroft.
"There are innovators everywhere who want to bring about new ways of doing things, but they're often isolated, so we're kind of like a matchmaker."
ZEVs are far from the only transportation solution; public transit, cycling and "15-minute cities" in which one's daily destinations are within walking distance are also essential.
But when Meadowcroft thinks about how quickly the automobile changed the world after Ford began rolling cars off the assembly line, he sees a valuable history lesson.
"Typically, with these types of major changes, small ideas are bubbling up but it doesn't look like much is happening," he says.
"Then you reach an inflection point and in a relatively rapid period of time the new technology stabilizes and takes off. That's what we're on the cusp of now."
Overhauling Multiple Systems
Although individual initiatives such as creating the ZEV supply chain alliance do have an impact, rapid decarbonization will require the overhaul of many systems at the same time.
"We need to develop new business models, change regulatory structures and encourage different consumer attitudes," says Meadowcroft, who is also on the governing council of Carleton-based Efficiency Canada, the national voice for an energy efficient economy.
"We need to use research in a very applied way to understand how a particular system works and what levers or instruments could be used to make changes."
Efforts to counter climate change in recent years have been too incremental, says Meadowcroft. Science shows us that this transformation isn't about cutting emissions by a certain percentage. It's about changing how our society functions.
"Our society is based on technologies and processes that release a lot of GHGs," says Meadowcroft. "Roughly 80 per cent of our total emissions come from burning fossil fuels. But manufacturing cement and steel for construction also releases emissions. And in Canadian agriculture, about 80 per cent of emissions are related to practices like raising livestock and the use of nitrogen fertilizers.
"I have no doubt that we can and will decarbonize the Canadian economy," Meadowcroft continues.
"In many cases, the technology exists or is on the horizon. The main obstacles are political, social and economic. Change is going to come. It's a question of how quickly."