Speedier transition needed to achieve clean energy’s full potential

With the world’s population on track to reach 10 billion by 2050, the drive towards a more sustainable global economy has become an imperative. Arguably, few people recognize that imperative more than University of British Columbia (UBC) professor Walter Mérida.

Prof. Mérida is the director of the university’s Clean Energy Research Centre. While his personal focus is on sustainable energy systems, transportation, fuel cells and hydrogen, he acknowledges that energy is just one component of a sustainable future.

By 2050, the demand for natural resources will quadruple, which means the innovation processes in energy, food production, water services and urban design must be accelerated.
Prof. Mérida says for energy systems to be sustainable they must simultaneously minimize environmental damage, ensure geopolitical stability and enable economic diversification. The challenge is time.

... we need breakthroughs. We cannot rely on incremental improvements to existing systems and technologies.

— Prof. Walter Mérida Director, University of British Columbia Clean Energy Research Centre

“Change is happening too slowly,” he says. “We hear a lot about the progress being made with renewable energy, and it’s true that we have made incredible progress in wind and solar energy. But if you look back at the history of the energy system since the industrial revolution, it has taken roughly a century for the system to make a grand transition. In the industrial revolution, coal was the primary energy source, then about a hundred years later, we shifted to oil, and then after another hundred years, we are seeing a transition to natural gas.”

However, we don’t have another 100 years to wait for the next transition to sustainable energy services, adds Prof. Mérida.

“We have only a few decades to make the transition if we want to avoid the prospect of widespread environmental and economic disruption due to climate change. That means we need breakthroughs. We cannot rely on incremental improvements to existing systems and technologies,” he says.

Sustainable energy solutions require more than just renewable electricity. They also need to address issues such as heating, energy storage, long-range travel, lubricants, plastics and medicines as part of a broader package of energy services.

“Only a systems approach will work. Each link in the energy chain must be designed to connect people to integrated service architectures,” says Prof. Mérida.
He points out that UBC was the first university in Canada to have a sustainable development policy.

“We have incorporated sustainability into every aspect of our operations: from our infrastructure, services and procurement processes to our research, education and innovation initiatives.”
UBC is also one of the few universities to offer Master of Engineering Leadership degrees – combining business management and engineering – to address the need for leadership education in sustainability, including one in Clean Energy Engineering.

Operationally, UBC’s efforts have enabled them to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions of more than 33 per cent below 2007 levels, with simultaneous growth in student population and new construction.

“We have aggressive goals of reaching a 67 per cent reduction by 2020 and 100 per cent by 2050,” adds Prof. Mérida. “These are common challenges around the world, and I think one of the most valuable things we are doing is leading by example by showing that cities can actually grow and at the same time lower their carbon footprint.”

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