The challenge of climate change, of abandoning fossil fuels and finding ways of meeting our energy needs without ongoing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is upon us. We know that we need to transform our energy systems and infrastructure, but how to do it is a serious challenge. Energy is invisible in our daily lives. We turn on the light, we plug in our devices, we start the car, we hear the furnace kick on, we take a shower, we turn on the computer, and the energy is just there. We have been terribly successful at making energy a seamless and pervasive part of our life. Now we need to make it visible and rethink how we get it and use it.
The forum we held Nov. 17-18, 2016 at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, was designed to do just that. In the room were 50 experts from the Waterloo Region, drawn from academia, local institutions, government, businesses, and local NGOs. Each person had experience in thinking about some aspect of the energy systems. The goal of the forum was to think systematically and holistically about the region’s energy systems, and to explore together the options for replacing our dependence on fossil fuels with a sustainable energy system.
The forum kicked off an effort to plan energy systems for the Region that are fully decarbonized by 2050—that do not rely upon fossil fuels at all. This is an ambitious goal, and one that surpasses the province’s goal of an 80% reduction for GHG emissions from 1990 levels by 2050. We also did not consider using carbon offsets to reach a carbon neutral position. Why be so ambitious?
One reason is because the climate is already starting to change, and the more we continue to emit greenhouse gasses, the stronger the changes will become and the worse the impacts will be. We are likely going to need carbon offsets to reduce the impact of historical and inevitable emissions, to mitigate the carbon impacts of the infrastructure changes we need to make, and to offset places where carbon-free sources of energy seem unlikely to materialize (e.g. planes). Because we will need carbon offsets for these purposes (and that will be a lot of offsets), we did not use them to offset our ongoing use of fossil fuels in the region.
Another reason is because we should at least try to be so ambitious. We have known for decades that GHG emissions are a problem, but North America has not done much in moving the needle on carbon-intensive energy. It helped that Ontario abandoned coal powered electricity, but we have not yet managed to get serious reductions in carbon emissions across our energy system. We need to be ambitious to make up for this lack of movement.
Indeed, if climate change is going to be the human justice issue of the 21st century (as many currently think), Canada will need to decarbonize its energy systems in order to maintain its global status as a favored trading partner. Lawsuits are already being filed against fossil fuel companies for human rights violations (as the Philippines did this past summer). As impacts worsen, livelihoods are disrupted and lives are lost, expect this trend to accelerate. By 2035, countries (and businesses) that are not well on the way to decarbonization will likely be demonized in the international arena. For its reputation alone, Canada cannot have the highest carbon emissions per capita (among the top 10 overall emitters) in the coming decades.
But why focus primarily on the Waterloo Region? First and foremost, because planning energy at the local level makes sense. It is at the local level that crucial decisions about infrastructure are made, and it is on the basis of local knowledge that we can envision how to make it work here, with the cities and towns and neighborhoods that we have, with the buildings and homes that we have, with the climate, sun angle, wind resources, biomass resources, and rock substrate that we have. Indeed, the forum built on already substantial work by the local NGO Climate Action Waterloo Region and by local government efforts to develop a Community Energy Investment Strategy.
By working at the local level, we can also articulate the local benefits of decarbonization. In Waterloo Region, we currently spend $2.1 billion/year on energy, and over 85% of that leaves the Region. Can we do better, just in pure economic terms? Here in Waterloo, we may not have sufficient local renewable energy resources to aim at full energy independence, but keeping more energy dollars local would be beneficial. And much of the work of making the region’s built environment more efficient would boost local economic activity. In addition to the flow of dollars, we also discussed a number of other positive impacts, from improved health to improved community cohesiveness, that removing fossil fuels from our energy portfolio could have for the region.
The scope of the challenge is such that the Region cannot tackle this issue by itself. It will need help from the provincial and federal levels of government. The forum addressed this by discussing a range of policy changes at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels that will assist with decarbonization, from carbon pricing, to building energy ratings, to infrastructure funding, to building codes, to planning regulations. We also discussed how, beyond carbon pricing and reinvestment of those monies in sustainable energy infrastructure, we could fund the required energy transformation, through innovative financial instruments like green bonds, impact investment, and reformed accounting practices.
The forum did not try to tackle all aspects of sustainability or even all potential sources of greenhouse gas emissions. We focused on energy use (which produces over 90% of the region’s GHG emissions) and did not address emissions from agriculture (only 5% of emissions for the region). We did not address embedded emissions in imported products (one policy recommendation to the federal government is to use carbon border adjustments). We did not address all the other facets of a truly sustainable society (water, food, soil conservation, biodiversity, etc.). However, we did find that thinking about decarbonizing energy in a careful and systematic way brought out important co-benefits for broader sustainability. For example, for energy reasons, it will be crucial to continue to increase the density of the urban cores in our region, and this will also help preserve agricultural land which is so important for our region.
For two days, we discussed how to meet regional energy needs without fossil fuels given projected population growth. We learned the scope and nature of the challenge, and where the specific difficulties for our region will lie. We learned where we need to do more research, which plausible options require more specific local information before they can be implemented at scale, and what kinds of policies can get things moving in the right direction.
Finally, the process we used in the forum is being documented so that it can be emulated by other municipalities struggling with similar issues. The forum is the start of one pathway to meeting the energy transformation challenge in a technically and democratically responsible way.