An integrated view towards a green economy

It has been a few years since Canada signed the Paris Climate Agreement. Under the agreement, the country is supposed to reduce its emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 in comparison to 2005 levels. So far it is on track to miss the target. Last November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finally submitted draft legislation for the country to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

“The Paris agreement, it requires a lot of work. The reason why we need a big international agreement to get things moving is that it is a hard problem. But there has been a lot of momentum in the last decade – electric vehicles, for example. Ten years ago, we didn’t see any and now we see them everywhere,” says Taco Niet, an assistant professor at the School of Sustainable Engineering at SFU.

Niet has been working with the UN in the last few years to develop better energy system modelling.

Energy system modelling

The environment we live in is a complex system with interlinking and interdependent actors. Niet’s research basically looks at big picture questions in energies at a country or regional level and investigates the tradeoffs and synergies between different actors and policies.

“I am using the UN CLEW (Climate, Land, Energy, Water) model. There are a lot of inter-actions between different pieces. For example, if we do all solar thermal energy, that will cause land use and other challenges. So, the CLEW model takes into account all those interactions and puts it together in a path for land, energy and water that is sustainable,” Niet explains.

He says different countries face different resource constraints and the optimization model is not prescriptive but more comparative in offering insights on policy making. In general, according to Niet, most energy technologies for generating electricity require water. Food production requires water. Biomass requires both strong land and water use. Solar and wind systems both take up land space though wind energy less so. Hydropower is also where land and water interact a lot.

In the Canadian context, Niet made an example of studies done on using biomass to decarbonize to illustrate the complexity of the problem.

“Say we are trying to get rid of coal plants and convert the energy source to biomass, but biomass has to be grown somewhere, so there is a land-use implication to decar-bonize the energy. There have been very few studies on these land-use implications. Does it mean taking over wheat fields, or does it mean deforestation? And if you take an acre of forest and take it down, that has emission implications too,” he says.

He adds that it is great that many countries are making net-zero emission pledges but the challenges lie in that a lot of the carbon offsets in those pledges are not really well defined. He believes eventually we will have to get beyond net-zero and get to natural zero-emission.

Canada’s path

For Canada, Niet says, the country has a lot of hydro and some nuclear. Given solar and wind energy productions face geographical constraints, he thinks nuclear energy probably has to be a part of the zero-emission system because it is one of the few technology systems that can keep running non-stop.

Taco Niet, assistant professor at the School of Sustainable Engineering at SFU. | Photo by Taco Niet

To reduce current emission levels, Niet believes the first step is getting rid of coal which should happen within the next few years. The next step is getting rid of other fossil fuels such as figuring out how to deal with heavy transportations as they still use diesel fuel, he is hopeful as he sees great new technologies coming out.

“In another ten years we probably won’t see a non-electric car on the road. Non-electric delivery vehicles will be much rarer. Maybe in another 20 years we won’t be burning fossil fuels. There is a lot of learning and engineering, but I think we can do it,” he says.

Niet serves as one of the inaugural faculty members of SFU’s newly launched School of Sustainable Energy Engineering. The school just welcomed its first cohort last September and aims to help to prepare students to build a more sustainable future.

“The goal of the program is to build knowledge of those challenges of renewable energies, so when they graduate, they can bring these ideas and concepts to the industry and they can start addressing them,” Niet adds.

Through his work with the UN, Niet says the bigger challenge is in the developing world and how to help them meet their requirements in a way that is sustainable.

“Many people in the developing world are still undernourished. Getting them to a place where they are healthy and can have a reasonable standard of living is going to use a lot of energy, land, food and water,” he says. “There are big challenges. The technological solutions over the next 10 to 15 years will get a lot of those in place at least in the developed world. In other developing countries, where they are still building coal plants, we need to help them transition to a greener economy.”