With the leaders of Canada, the United States, and Mexico having just committed to a North American Climate, Clean Energy, and Environment Partnership, the issue of climate change is back in the news. Specifically, the agreement sets a continent-wide target of 50% clean power generation by 2025, to be achieved through a combination of clean energy development and deployment, energy efficiency, and clean energy innovation.
If we are to achieve these and other environmental improvement goals, it is through innovation that we must do so. Canadians are simply not willing to take the huge economic hit that drastic measures like a complete and rapid shift away from fossil fuels would entail — nor should they. Instead of trying to shrink our way to a green future, we should aim for green growth through innovation.
When people think about innovations that could help reduce greenhouse gases and avoid what they imagine will be catastrophic climate change in a few decades, however, they usually think about things like solar power, wind power, and electric cars. But more efficient photovoltaics, turbines, and batteries — which would be required to make these technologies affordable and reliable enough to be widely adopted — are not our only hopes of reining in GHG emissions.
During a trip out West earlier this year, I had the pleasure of touring the microbiology lab at the University of Calgary and meeting Associate Professor Casey Hubert, CAIP Research Chair in Geomicrobiology. He and his colleagues have plans to collaborate on thermophile research that could lead to greener ways of extracting oil from oil sands.
The science is frankly beyond me, but apparently, there might be a way to use thermophilic bacteria (that is, bacteria that operate at relatively high temperatures) to significantly lower the GHG emissions intensity associated with oil sands production. A lower emissions intensity means less GHGs emitted per barrel of oil produced — maybe even less than conventional oil.
This may not get any cheers from green groups with a knee-jerk hatred for all things oil-related, but finding ways to produce oil more efficiently can be a part of the solution. So can finding ways to consume it more efficiently, which is to say, doing more with every barrel of oil.
It would be quite something if this thermophile research pans out. Of course, it's not as if oil sands extraction technology has been standing still. Indeed, as Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu explained in a paper released by my organization in 2012, GHG emissions per barrel of oil produced from the oil sands fell by almost 30% in the two decades from 1990 to 2009.
The specific direction that innovation will take is hard to predict, though. A hundred or so years ago, when horses were polluting the streets of every big city, few could have anticipated that a new technology would soon do away with that particular problem and its attendant health hazards, but that's exactly what the gasoline-powered automobile did.
Similarly today, we don't know if the answer to our climate concerns is more affordable solar panels, more efficient electric car batteries, cleaner oil sands production thanks to thermophilic bacteria, or something else, maybe something no one has even thought of yet. And of course, there will certainly be several answers, all operating in conjunction to solve our problems in the most efficient ways possible.
Since we can't predict the future, it's important that we let entrepreneurs and researchers try as many different innovative solutions to a problem as they can imagine.
It's important not to dismiss or disregard certain possibilities simply because they don't quite fit our preconceptions about what constitutes a green technology.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this op-ed are his own.