To meet the Paris Agreement commitment to keep global warming within two degrees Celsius, the world’s largest emitters must reduce their carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, a challenge that 2017 Clean50 Education and Thought Leadership Award winner Walter Mérida describes as “incredibly ambitious.”
Yet the alternative is unthinkable. “If we don’t do something dramatic and drastic about our energy system, forget two degrees – the destruction to the planet may be inevitable,” he stresses.
While the agreement was historic in its own right, he believes that two initiatives announced during the summit provide even greater reason for optimism: the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, led by Bill Gates, a group of investors who want to invest and disrupt the usual innovation cycles in energy technology; and Mission Innovation, an alliance of 21 countries, including Canada, committed to doubling their public investment in climate change solutions.
With the emergence of these new initiatives, “the sources of innovation funding in clean energy technology have changed significantly,” says Dr. Mérida, the director of the University of British Columbia (UBC) Clean Energy Research Centre (CERC) and a professor in UBC’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.
Most potentially consequential, he believes, is a new taskforce of the Financial Stability Board, an international forum that studies and makes recommendations on the global financial system, and that is led by Bank of England governor Mark Carney. The task force is headed by financial publishing magnate and politician Michael Bloomberg, and its mandate is to assess corporate exposure to climate change risk. “New risk-assessment tools and metrics may unleash the power of large, institutional investors like pension funds and sovereign wealth funds,” says Dr. Mérida.
“I’m an engineer and scientist, but I’m the first to recognize that the innovation required is also in financing, fiscal instruments, public-private partnerships, First Nations involvement in clean energy deployment, and getting municipal, provincial and federal governments to work together,” he says.
Dr. Mérida and his team are working to solve critical barriers to the wider adoption of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, tidal and geothermal. “The problem is that we don’t yet have good, large-scale storage mechanisms for electricity, and we need chemical fuels for use in things like jets, ships and trains,” he explains. “Hydrogen is the simplest synthetic fuel that can be made in large quantities out of electricity, with technologies such as electrolysis, photolysis and other advanced energy conversion pathways.”
Dr. Mérida’s early mentors included Geoffrey Ballard of Ballard Power Systems and Alexander (Sandy) Stuart of Stuart Energy Systems (now Hydrogenics). Their companies continue to be world leaders, putting Canada in a fortunate position to leverage that advantage globally. But Dr. Mérida sees countries such as Germany and Japan now starting to pull ahead, largely because Canada does not have a national roadmap for hydrogen infrastructure deployment.
To overcome these and similar barriers, “we have to bridge the gap between technologies developed in our universities and the stage at which investors or industries want to get involved so that there can be a smooth transfer into commercialization and wide use,” says Dr. David
Wilkinson. A former director at CERC (an interdisciplinary centre that brings together UBC clean energy innovators from throughout the university), Dr. Wilkinson is a former vice president of research at Ballard Power and the Canada Research Chair in Clean Energy and Fuel Cells in UBC’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.
Comprehensive research universities have developed a wealth of clean energy solutions that include UBC’s carbon capture and water treatment technologies, with the potential to reduce carbon emissions in the order of megatons and to save hundreds of millions of barrels of fresh water per year when implemented in Canada’s resource sector, he says.
But for that to happen, says Dr. Wilkinson, Canadian investors must be more willing to invest in innovation, and federal and provincial governments must recognize and develop support for the current gaps in the innovation chain.
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