Let’s target the real climate culprit - emissions, not Alberta

By Harrie Vredenburg, Globe and Mail, November 7, 2019

Harrie Vredenburg is a professor and Suncor Chair in Strategy & Sustainability at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary

At times during the recent election campaign, it seemed environmentally progressive Canadians were not so much concerned with addressing climate change as with virtuously signalling their opposition to oil, and specifically to Alberta. An engineering professor told me about an experience where he asked an audience: “If we could develop a technology to extract energy from oil reservoirs while leaving the carbon in the ground, who would be interested in that?” Not one hand went up. It is a sad commentary on our body politic.

While some like to portray Calgary as a city of oil industry climate retrogrades, the reality is far from that. In a city with a highly educated population of professionals – the headquarters of Canada’s energy industry and the home of three universities and an institute of technology – there are people working on radical climate mitigating innovations.

Climate change is ultimately about personal behaviour. Calgarians understand that. Over 300,000 commuters get to work daily on Calgary Transit’s wind-powered light rail transit (LRT). More than 40 per cent of downtown workers commute by LRT, making it the busiest light rail system in North America; an extension is expected to raise that to 60 per cent. Since the city built bicycle lanes, bicycle commuting has increased by 50 per cent.

In the headquarters city of Canada’s largest export industry, climate change mitigation means innovation in energy production and transport. I have studied how the industry is innovating for technological breakthroughs. These studies describe how the industry uses multi-firm open innovation and single firm initiatives to develop technologies for reducing emissions at competitive costs.

One radical innovation focuses on zero-carbon hydrogen production to power fuel-cell electric vehicles. While battery-electric vehicles will serve the light vehicle market going forward, they have limitations for long-distance truck, ship and airplane transport. The batteries required would be too heavy or require too frequent recharging where charging infrastructure is lacking.

A solution for truck, ship and air transport is the hydrogen fuel-cell electric motor, which has zero emissions. However, the conventional way of producing hydrogen from hydrocarbons emits carbon. It is possible to produce hydrogen from renewables and make it carbon-free but, so far, that has been expensive and has not gotten much traction. It is also possible to capture and sequester the carbon making the hydrogen production carbon free. More exciting, however, is a new technology developed by the University of Calgary that is being commercialized by Proton Technologies. It produces hydrogen from hydrocarbon reservoirs while leaving the carbon behind.

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