Net zero spotlight: Canada’s mega-project approach to carbon cutting and efficiency

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Canada is a natural resource giant with the world’s fourth largest land area and the world’s largest territorial waters. Its approach to net zero appears to reflect that scale and nature.

In the latest of our series of net zero spotlights, we look at Canada, a sparsely populated giant that is attempting improve its carbon impact through some significant mega-projects and new technologies that reflect its natural resources and population concentrations. 

Net Zero 2050

The Canadian Net Zero Emissions Accountability Act became law in June of 2021, enshrining a commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Alongside that legislation, is the 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan that seeks to marry clean air and a strong economy as the country balances its valuable gas sector with the need to decarbonise. 

The 2030 plan aims to reduce emissions by 40-45 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, which will prove challenging. But the longer term 2050 aim is likely to benefit from significant investment in the country’s largest ever infrastructure projects – high frequency rail and LNG Canada – and in a new technology that could turn its unparalleled coastal waters into a carbon capture asset. 

LNG Canada 

The use of natural gas to reduce global carbon emissions is highly controversial across much of the world, though its use as a bridging energy to reduce the use of more carbon intensive coal and oil is well established. The EU Taxonomy for example, included natural gas projects as suitable for green investment finance, so long as those projects were to displace the use of dirtier fossil fuels. 

Canada has the world’s third largest oil reserves and provides almost half of all the USA’s oil imports. It is also the world’s fourth largest producer of natural gas, which makes up a large share of Canada’s own energy mix. So Canada has focused heavily on efficiency, announcing an end to tax subsidies for the oil and gas industry except for projects that drive up efficiency. One such projects is LNG Canada. 

In 2018 the $40bn LNG Canada project was given the go-ahead. The project will initially export LNG from two processing units, or “trains”, totaling 14 million tonnes per year of natural gas. Eventually, two additional trains will increase that to 26 million tonnes per year.

Production of LNG can generate significant carbon. The global average is approximately three tonnes of CO2 equivalent for every ten tonnes of LNG produced. LNG Canada has been designed at a scale and with modern methods that are expected to halve that figure. This could set a new benchmark for the global industry, but it is still far from net zero even before the LNG is shipped and burned as fuel. So Canada has also focused strongly on carbon capture. 

Direct Ocean Capture

Canada has long been one of the world’s largest investors in carbon capture, although the very limited success of the sector globally has led many to question whether it can play a significant role in achieving net zero by 2050. But Canada is now poised to lead the world in a new climate solution that removes carbon dioxide (CO2) directly from the ocean rather than the air.

Captura, a Direct Ocean Capture (DOC) company founded at Caltech, and Deep Sky, a Montreal-based venture dedicated to commercialising carbon removal and storage solutions at scale, are partnering to deploy DOC facilities in Canada – starting with a demonstration plant that will capture 100 tons of CO2 annually. Once operational the partners plan to then build facilities to capture up to one millions tons annually.

The Captura pilot system will be located in Eastern Quebec in 2024. It will be powered by low carbon energy from the region’s strong renewable hydroelectric energy capacity and it may turn Canada’s extensive sea territories into a global carbon sequestration asset, enabling carbon capture to focus on the much higher concentration of carbon in the seas than in the air, making carbon capture at scale potentially far easier and more efficient, and enabling the seas to absorb natural levels of carbon from the atmosphere. 

Deep Sky founder Fred Lalonde explained why the group had partnered with Captura to make this happen. “Climate change is the biggest existential threat to humankind. Wildfires, global droughts, and record hurricanes are just the beginning. We’re serious about building large-scale carbon removal infrastructure to save our planet, and Captura’s scalable, durable and measurable technology stood out as a clear choice for Deep Sky’s first official technology partnership.”

The High Frequency Rail Project 

While Canada has a strong focus on creating a more efficient oil and gas industry and capturing carbon over the long term, it is also investing in more conventional low-carbon megaprojects. the LNG Canada project may be the largest infrastructure project in Canadian history, but the proposed High Frequency Rail Project is likely to take that title from it. 

The project is presently undergoing rounds for tender, with three large consortia of well established companies passing the qualifying round. The route is also not set in detail yet and will be agreed once the winning consortium begins its work. However, this 1,000km railway is a significant part of Canada’s decarbonisation plans. 

At present, travel between cities is a challenge to achieving net zero, with 94% of current travel through the heavily populated region between Québec and Toronto is undertaken by car, and only 2% by rail. 

To overcome this, the new dedicated passenger railway has the potential to take millions of vehicles off the roads between the cities of Toronto and Québec City, passing through Peterborough, Ottawa, Montréal and Trois-Rivières.

The high frequency railway is not intended as a high speed rail service but it will significantly shorten journey times and the design phase will examine whether it the benefits would justify the costs of making some sections high speed. Regardless of speeds, the huge 17 million passenger capacity of the line will reduce the need for passenger capacity on existing tracks in the region, which will enable Canada to move more freight onto the railways.