The Alberta wildfires, triggered by abnormally hot and dry conditions, continue to rage. In just over two months, the disaster has claimed more than two million acres of land (about half the size of Lake Ontario), resulting in thousands of displaced people and billions in damages. And with significant fires this spring in Nova Scotia and Ontario, this year has been the worst wildfire season on record. It’s another signal that Canada must control its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as quickly as possible. Planting more trees will not be enough.
“Hitting net zero is just a milestone, not the end goal,” says Andy Lam, senior manager of Climate Programs with Mission from MaRS. Even if every country on the planet were to reach their 2050 targets, the earth’s temperature would continue to rise given all the GHGs already in the atmosphere. To help the planet return to the climate conditions of earlier decades — that is, livable, sustainable conditions — humans need to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they emit. “That’s why we need to go beyond net zero and reach negative emissions,” says Lam. “And we need as many tools as possible to get us there before the damage becomes irreversible.”
The good news is that solutions to end the climate crisis already exist, and many are being produced by homegrown companies. Indeed, carbon management — technologies that reduce, capture, convert and remove emissions — is one of the Canadian tech community’s most promising pursuits in terms of environmental impact and economic opportunity. And now is the time to capitalize as the United States and other countries are pouring billions into ventures via grants and production-based incentives.
While Canada is envied for its research strength and government programs, it needs to catch up when it comes to actually scaling solutions. Na’im Merchant is the director of the policy think tank, Carbon Removal Canada. Originally from Vancouver, Merchant just moved to Toronto from Washington D.C. to help shepherd the carbon removal movement. “Canada has everything it needs to become a world leader in this sector,” says Merchant. “We have less polarization than our neighbours. And we have the universities, the corporate partners and the giant industries, such as oil and gas, looking to make the transition.” All of that requires funnelling these great resources to the proper ventures.
There are many promising ventures in this space. Consider, for example, Squamish-based Carbon Engineering, which has developed machines that literally suck carbon dioxide from the air, and is working on trapping it underground forever or repurposing it as low-carbon fuel. The company has set its sights high — it’s aiming to have 70 large-scale direct air capture facilities up and running by 2035, each one pulling in up to 1 million tonnes of carbon each year. Planetary Technologies, headquartered in Dartmouth received $1 million from Elon Musk’s XPRIZE for its work on sequestering carbon in the ocean. Then there’s Vancouver’s Arca. It captures carbon dioxide and speeds up the natural process of carbon mineralization, essentially turning it into rocks.
“Companies like Arca are super exciting because they transform waste from mines, thus saving money and reducing their carbon footprint even further,” Merchant explains. “The mining industry must be an active partner in the energy transition. We’re going to need their capital, their scientific expertise and their ability to make batteries as fossil fuels run out.”
But even Jetsons-like tech needs help getting off the ground. It can cost up to $1,000 to remove just one tonne of carbon from the air. “Yes, that figure is scary,” says Merchant, “but wind, solar and batteries used to cost 100 times what they do today.” Many factors helped lower the price of those once-risky technologies: strong government investment with production-based incentives, experimentation to find efficiencies, as well as the identification of early allies, such as corporations, to foster economies of scale.
Carbon management, however, is not a silver bullet. Along with being expensive, many technologies produce their own emissions during production and operation. And flashy tech like direct air capture should not encourage nations and corporations to simply buy environmental credits and continue burning fossil fuels. In an ideal future, regular citizens and giant institutions alike would reduce their pollution as much as possible, and rely on new innovations to offset excess emissions. That’s why Merchant places so much emphasis on raising awareness: “We can’t depend on voluntary action,” he says. “Carbon removal is a public good, and the government needs to prioritize it as such.”
Enter Mission from MaRS: Carbon Management. This next stage of the program supports ventures from across Canada working in the carbon space. Companies are encouraged to apply to the Carbon Dioxide Removal Accelerator , a special program that will provide targeted support, identifying the companies’ greatest business and technical needs, advising them, and then connecting them to customers. Each venture will gain access to a coalition of experts — entrepreneurs, investors, executives, academics and policymakers — high-profile professionals who are themselves looking to buy and have the power to drive progressive policy. Mission from MaRS also educates these stakeholders on the latest developments, while sharing stories of success with the general public. The goal is to help these ventures scale and spread awareness, reduce emissions and create thousands of jobs in the process.
“Canada will blow past its 2050 goals, but we’re still going to need carbon management to cool temperatures and bring us back,” says Lam. “I’m hopeful because science tells us that this crisis is reversible, and every day, I see a new crop of ventures stepping up. Governments are declaring emergencies and climate action is now part of our children’s curricula. We just need to bring more people in.”
Want to learn more about what it will take to build a sustainable and prosperous planet? Find out more about Mission from MaRS: Carbon Management.
Mission from MaRS would not be possible without the support of its founding partners HSBC Canada, the Trottier Family Foundation, RBC Tech for Nature and the Thistledown Foundation. The Carbon Management initiative has also received funding from the Grantham Foundation and the Peter Gilgan Foundation.
Image source: istock