Sustainable Energy Lecture: Low Carbon Futures and Natural Gas: Bridge or Barrier?

Speaker: Ralph Torrie

Date: February 26, 2013

About the Speaker

Mr. Torrie is currently Managing Director and principal investigator with the Trottier Energy Futures Project. The project’s mandate is to identify and begin implementation of a low-carbon, sustainable energy future for Canada—a future in which energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Canada are 80% below the 1990 level by 2050. Since completing an Honours B.Sc. at the University of Waterloo, Mr. Torrie has spent his 35-year professional career developing and implementing environmentally sustainable energy strategies for companies, municipalities, and governments. He previously served as Assistant Coordinator of the Energy Research Group of the United Nations University and the International Development Research Future Centre, Vice President at ICF International, and Managing Director at Navigant Consulting. Mr. Torrie has also contributed to projects for the David Suzuki Foundation and the National Round Table on Environment and the Economy. In 2002, he received Canadian Geographic’s Canadian Environment Silver Award for his work with local governments on climate change.

About the Sustainable Energy Lecture Series

This presentation is one of an ongoing series of lectures on aspects of sustainable energy, which are part of the Master’s program in Sustainable Energy, organized by the Carleton Research Unit in Innovation, Science and Environment (CRUISE) and the Carleton Sustainable Energy Research Centre (CSERC). The lecture series was established in 2010, and since then has covered diverse topics ranging from examinations of the sustainability of nuclear power, to Aboriginal energy projects in Canada, and the ability to catalyze action on climate change.

Highlights of Mr. Torrie’s lecture and a summary of the discussion follow. The link to the presentation is provided below.

Canada’s Energy Mix and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Canadian primary energy demand has consistently followed an upward trend since the end of the Great Depression. This trend has been mirrored by a similar growth trend in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, due in large part to the dominance of fossil fuels in Canada’s energy mix. In 1990, Canadian GHG emissions related to energy use – which account for 82% of total GHG emissions – were about 500 megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). Two perspectives can be used to get a better sense of not only where GHG emissions are produced (point of emission perspective), but also deduce the demand drivers leading to emissions (end use perspective). These demand drivers are an important consideration for the Trottier Energy Futures Project.

To fulfill the Trottier Energy Futures Project’s low-carbon mandate, Canada would have to decrease its emissions to 100 Mt CO2e by 2050, a level not seen since the beginning of the Second World War. A reduction of emissions on this scale would require Canadians to decrease their per capita consumption of end use energy by 52% overall, with a specific reduction of per capita GHG emissions of 95%.

This is a daunting task, but there is justification in believing that this goal is achievable based on improvements in Canada’s energy productivity (the amount of energy consumed per unit of gross domestic product produced) since the 1970s. Without these gains, today’s emissions would be closer to 1,250 Mt CO2e instead of about 600. This decoupling of energy use from GDP shows that the economy can grow without consuming a proportionately larger amount of energy.

A Low-Carbon Future’s Essential Elements

To build on the productivity gains already made and hasten the transition to a low-carbon economy, the Trottier Energy Futures Project has outlined five essential elements that must be addressed:

  • Efficiency, efficiency, and then more efficiency
  • Electrification of transportation and some heat applications
  • Decarbonization of the electricity supply
  • Sustainable production of biofuels
  • A reduction in the energy services (heat, mobility, electricity uses) required to meet the
  • fundamental demand for human needs and amenities.

Underlying these five elements are three levers that are available to reduce emissions:

  • Further reductions in energy use per unit of activity in the economy
  • As switch to low- or no-carbon fuel sources, including the use of carbon capture and storage
  • Shifts in the overall pattern of activity in the economy that gives rise to energy demand.

If utilized properly, these levers will lead to a gradual decarbonization of the economy, putting the Trottier Project’s goal of 100 Mt CO2e by 2050 within Canada’s grasp.

In this scenario, natural gas has already played a role in reducing GHG emissions by replacing higher-emission fossil fuels in Canada’s energy mix, and it is an important future fuel source. However, if natural gas were used to replace all of Canada’s other fossil fuels in the energy mix, emission levels would only decline to 400 Mt CO2e, far from the 80% GHG reduction target.

Discussion Summary

Given the depth of the changes proposed in the presentation, the discussion coalesced around four themes: economics, public policies, technical feasibility and the role of consumer behaviour.

On the theme of economics, one attendee asked how the Trottier Energy Futures Project and its aims had been received by the oil and gas industry. It was noted that oil and gas companies approach the issue of sustainability in a variety of ways. Some are open and receptive to the idea, while others were more or less indifferent. This contrast in engagement highlights an area of concern, given that the production, refining and transportation of oil and gas accounts for nearly 30% of Canada’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.

Attendees noted that the decarbonization scenario Mr. Torrie had described would be an economic and industrial policy as much as an environmental policy. The group discussed current governments’ attentiveness to the decarbonization of their economies, concluding that they already know the policies needed to achieve an 80% GHG reduction; what is generally lacking is a willingness to fully engage in the process of decarbonization.

On public policies and economics, attendees discussed the role of developing nations in a global vision of a low-carbon future, and whether the financial costs are too great for them to incur by themselves. While financing could indeed be a barrier, Mr. Torrie said there are reasons for optimism. Many developing nations would not need to make the radical changes that are required of countries like Canada, since high-emissions infrastructure and social norms are not nearly as entrenched in other parts of the world. Moreover, many developing nations are adopting sustainability as part of their development process, leaving hope that a low-carbon world is indeed possible.

Attendees asked whether the Trottier scenarios were based on “off the shelf” technologies, or whether a technological “magic bullet” would be required to reach the 80% target. Mr. Torrie made it clear that the scenarios are feasible with today’s technologies, but seem daunting given our current approach to energy production and consumption.

There was also a concern regarding the deployment of energy storage on a large scale, to account for non-dispatchable forms of renewable electricity generation. While storage could become a concern, Mr. Torrie said the proportion of non-dispatchable load deemed acceptable in a grid system has been revised upwards, most recently by the 2012 Renewable Electricity Study by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratories, and concerns will likely diminish as grid operators become more familiar with intermittent generation. It was also pointed out that pumped storage is already in large-scale use, and could be a part of the solution.

Two questions about the role of consumers in a low-carbon future highlighted the complexity of a decarbonization scenario. An attendee asked about the role social changes would need to play in reaching the 80% target. Mr. Torrie said technology changes alone would not lead to sufficient emission reductions and that the “third family” of social norms and individual behaviour would play an important role.

But there is no simple answer about the role of price signals, such as carbon taxes, as effective policy instruments. Mr. Torrie said energy is different from other types of commercial products that typically respond to price signals, since consumers pay for the services energy provides, not the energy itself. So price signals may have limited use in altering consumer behaviour, and more research is needed to address the societal norms and patterns that give rise to energy demand.

Closing Thoughts

Asked about natural gas as a bridge or a barrier to a low-carbon energy future, Mr. Torrie said gas will be a part of the energy mix but not a solution in itself. A low-carbon future will come from a drastic alteration in our approach to energy production, and in the way individuals use energy services in their daily lives. An 80% reduction in GHG emissions will not be easy to achieve, but it is possible—and, given the threats posed by climate change, it is necessary. What is needed is not a “miracle technology”, but a willingness to engage with the challenges and to look at low-carbon solutions with an open mind.

Written by David Cherniak

Masters student in the Sustainable Energy Policy Program

To View a PDF of Mr. Torrie’s Presentation, click here .