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Webinar recap: The road to net-zero

By Richard Golbeck, December 4 2021—

Following The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, concerns about climate change and energy production have been pushed to the forefront of the public zeitgeist. Subsequent discussions have been taking place at universities and institutions across the globe, and the University of Calgary has participated in this trend by hosting a public webinar titled “The Road to Net-Zero.”

This discussion was made possible through the contributions of several well recognized professors and industry leaders, as well as the moderator, Chancellor Deborah Yedlin. The panel included Dr. Kerry Black, Peter Tertzakian, Jana Mosley and Dr. Jennifer Winter.

Yedlin was inaugurated as the University of Calgary’s 14th chancellor in 2018, prior to which she served as journalist within the city. Black, professor of both Civil and Environmental Engineering, holds a PhD in Environmental Engineering and holds the Canada research chair at CEERE. Tertzakian is both a professor at the Haskayne School of Business, as well as the deputy director of ARC Energy Research Institute and the managing director of ARC financial. Mosley is the president of ENMAX power. Lastly, Winter is an economics professor, and holds a PhD in the same field. She also stands as the scientific director at the School of Public Policy.

Before opening the floor to her guests, Yedlin contextualized the discussion by situating the issue in terms of climate change issues facing Canada as a whole.

“Canada contributes to two per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions with only 0.5 per cent of the world’s population,” said Yedlin.

Yedlin continued by citing recent environmental catastrophes, such as the prolific flooding in British Columbia, and how this provides a window into the upcoming effects of climate change. 

Focusing on goals set forth in COP26, this webinar emphasized three aspects of Canada’s commitment of transitioning to net-zero emissions by 2050. First, they discussed the value of policies which support Canada’s international commitments for reduction of emissions, after which they considered the role technology, innovation and infrastructure have in the fight against climate change. They concluded the discussion by considering the usefulness of incentives and deterrents, and how we should move forward to attain Canada’s international commitments. 

Tertzakian, Winter, and Black tackled the first topic at hand, which was the role of international climate goals and commitments in the transition to net-zero emissions. Both Winter and Tertzakian agreed that international commitments are foundational and necessary, but remain vapid enterprises without the domestic hard policy work to match them.

Tertzakian showed cautious optimism when addressing the goals and targets set out in COP26, but emphasized the value of broaching this topic in such a forum. He noted that although much is uncertain and that predictions about whether emission caps can be met may be premature, the importance of engaging with serious conversations about reducing coal should not be trivialized.

 “The reality is,” Tertzakian stated, “there is now more momentum around getting rid of coal and trying to figure out how to do so.” 

Winters continued the discussion regarding the relationship between goal and policy.

“COP26 is about making signals and committing to other countries that Canada is serious about taking action,” said Winters. “Goals are fantastic, but hard policy work is coming in the next couple years.” 

Following Winters, Black talked about the recent declaration of a climate emergency within Calgary. Echoing sentiments previously brought up by Winters and Tertzakian, Black noted that although this mayoral announcement was important, these words remain empty promises until policies are enacted and the community is engaged.  She explained how the first step to the energy transition is educating the public on the necessity of change. Without this understanding of the imminent dangers of climate change, it will be difficult to aggregate community and grass level support for change. 

“We are often too concerned with our own environment,” said Tertzakian. Since people place more weight on the occurrences within their own communities, they are often unable to change unless posed with a direct threat. 

Black then went on to explain that community involvement and a holistic approach to fighting climate change are necessary, as we must acknowledge the problem before we can act.

Another issue addressed was technology, innovation and infrastructure, and their relation to the transition to net-zero. Black opened this discussion by responding to the question of whether it is realistic to think that technology and innovation can decarbonize traditional oil and natural gas to ensure our resources can still be produced. She acknowledged the importance of technology and innovation in the effort for decarbonization, although maintaining that there exists a schism between the average Calgarian and researchers’ understanding of the role technology plays in this fight. 

“This technology is disconnected from the individual experience,” she stated, and as a result said that it lacks community support.

Black then noted how this can be solved through collaborative efforts between researchers and the public, which requires a transdisciplinary process for the transition to net-zero emissions to be successful.

 “The more we can cross that table and truly do transdisciplinary collaborative work, then the better off we’ll be pushing for that change,” Black concluded.  

Mosley and Black added to this conversation by responding to the multi-pronged question from the Q&A section. 

“How do we really address the [energy] demand side from a consumer and infrastructure standpoint? Can the decarbonization of building city infrastructure be done in a way that keeps our ecosystems intact?” an audience member asked. 

There is a massive demand for energy and infrastructure production, which will increase as the rapid urbanization continues globally. Is there a way to ensure our infrastructure projects can both meet the needs of the growing urban population while meeting the goals of net-zero emissions by 2050?

Mosley answered this question by highlighting the necessity of interdisciplinary collaboration when planning urban spaces. Black added to this answer, saying that we must consider what drives change in our society. No longer, she argued, can we just build infrastructure and wait for people to start using it and instead need to start designing spaces fundamentally differently than we did in the past. 

“I don’t drive to work because of a desire to do so, I drive to work because the way in which the city is built requires so,” Mosley said. She concluded this dialogue by acknowledging that change will happen with individuals and communities, but we unfortunately leave them out of the design process.

“The ones we are expecting to change are the ones we need to involve early on in this design process.”

Lastly, the panel discussed the use of incentives and deterrents when pushing for the transition to net-zero emissions 2050.

Winter started the discussion by stating that deterrents such as carbon taxes are important, as they provide financial incentive for corporations and individuals to change their behaviour. Although agreeing with this sentiment, Winter maintained that the change would require massive government supplementation. 

“Governments have the lowest borrowing costs,” said Winter. “There needs to be massive investment by governments to help with the transition to offset costs.” 

Tertzakian agreed on the necessity of both incentives and punishments in the transition towards net zero, noting their importance in changing behaviour as well. 

“People don’t latch on to the new until [they’re] completely convinced the old is done,” said Tertzakian. “We must be mindful about the unintended consequences of doing things too quickly,” Tertzakian cautioned while addressing the concerns of a disorderly transition to net-zero. 

“The perception that has been created out there with all this sense of urgency has [caused] a selection or confirmation bias that we are transitioning a lot faster than we really are. [This] has caused a lack of maintenance and capital in our old energy systems […] where now the supply side is having difficulty keeping up with the demand side.” 

Although net-zero is a necessary change, we must try to avoid sacrificing energy security by keeping it affordable and reliable. 

“We must work together, otherwise we won’t achieve the transition effectively,” he said. “There are so many pieces required to make sure this works for everyone and everything.” 

This webinar provided insight into not only the issues facing Canadians today and moving forward, but the concerns we should attend to in order to assist in the safe and effective transition towards net-zero emissions by 2050, as outlined in Canada’s commitments in COP26. Despite the speakers’ varied backgrounds, they all maintained that collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches are fundamental for ameliorating greenhouse gas emissions. 

You can watch this webinar on the University of Calgary’s webpage, as well as past and upcoming webinars on a variety of topics.

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