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Canada is touting hydrogen as crucial to its climate action plan, but how green is it?

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Canada is touting hydrogen as crucial to its climate action plan, but how green is it?
  • California increases GDP while decreasing emissions 
  • Scientists uncover traces of climate history by cracking open narwhal tusks

Canada is touting hydrogen as crucial to its climate action plan, but how green is it?

hydrogen station
(Sebastian Kahnert/dpa via AP)

What On Earth40:01Canada’s hydrogen plan includes fossil fuels. So, can it help?

Hydrogen might be a small molecule, but big hopes are being pinned on it as a solution to a cleaner, greener energy future. We look at Canada’s plan and hear why some think it’s not green enough. 40:01

Hydrogen may be one of the smallest elements, but it has been given a big place in Canada’s plan to meet its climate targets — and with companies promising everything from hydrogen-fuelled planes to hydrogen-powered manufacturing, it’s generating a lot of buzz.

But amid the hype, green energy experts caution that the government’s plan relies too heavily on hydrogen generated using fossil fuels and doesn’t provide a clear path to green hydrogen.

In December, the federal government released The Hydrogen Strategy for Canada, which boasts that due to our energy economy, thriving tech sector, abundance of biomass and access to wind and solar energy, Canada is well-positioned to become one of the world’s top three producers of clean hydrogen.

It also says the strategy could help Canada reach its net-zero emissions targets, generate 350,000 high-paying jobs nationally and fuel economic opportunities.

“All over the world, people are very excited about hydrogen. They’re excited about the fact that it’s zero-emission, and that it could fill in in places where electrification is harder — particularly in the transportation sectors,” said Seamus O’Regan, the country’s minister of Natural Resources, in an interview with What on Earth host Laura Lynch.

“Heavy-duty industrial projects, maritime shipping, 18-wheelers, freight, trains — these are all big emitters. Hydrogen may help us get to that happy place where they are fuelled by a non-emitting power source.”

Energy experts argue this happy place is still a long way off. 

Currently, hydrogen fuel is colour-coded. Grey hydrogen is made using fossil fuels such as natural gas; blue hydrogen is also made using fossil fuels, but the carbon emissions are captured and stored; and green hydrogen is made using renewable power such as wind, solar and hydro.

Almost all grey and blue hydrogen requires a process called steam-methane reforming, which uses steam to produce hydrogen from natural gas. Green hydrogen is most often made using electrolysis, which breaks water into hydrogen and oxygen.

According to Tahra Jutt, director of clean economy at the Pembina Institute, most of the hydrogen produced in Canada right now is grey, with a small percentage of blue.

The ultimate goal should be green, Jutt argues, but major pieces of the puzzle are still missing. Among them is the infrastructure to produce and transport hydrogen — which can be compressed and liquified, but that comes with major technical challenges — and the regulatory frameworks needed to get hydrogen systems up and running. 

Canada also needs to determine how the hydrogen will be used, she adds, and develop the equipment — such as trucks, planes and industrial machinery — that can use that fuel.

“A whole gamut of things have to happen on every level,” said Jutt. “It really would require a transformation of our whole energy system to accommodate this.”

O’Regan says that long-term, Canada is aiming for green hydrogen, especially in places like Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, where hydroelectric power is abundant. However, blue is a key part of the current strategy, especially in the West, which has extensive oil and gas infrastructure, which he acknowledges is problematic for some. 

“I’ll be very, very clear about this: If the goal for some people is to shut down the fossil fuel industry, then no, they won’t be happy with what I’m proposing.”

Walter Mérida, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of British Columbia, fears that using blue hydrogen to bridge our way to greener technologies risks backfiring, because the 2030 and 2050 targets are rapidly approaching, so we no longer have the luxury of time.

“We may become very good at these transitional solutions,” said Mérida, who also sits on the board of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association. “But by the time we are very good at them, other parts of the world may be leapfrogging to completely new technologies that may leave us behind.”

Clean Energy Canada policy director Sarah Petrevan says one of the biggest hurdles is funding. Countries such as Germany, France and Portugal are investing more than $10 billion Cdn to speed up hydrogen tech, but the Canadian government has been less clear on its financial commitments. 

(O’Regan says his government has created a $1.5-billion Low-carbon and Zero-emissions Fuels Fund, and that hydrogen will occupy “a fair amount of that space.”)

“More than anything, we have to look at the direction of where Canada’s major trade partners are headed,” Petrevan said, pointing out that Canada is primarily an export economy. 

“As the world transitions, there’s going to become an even greater imperative for Canada to transition at the same time to ensure that our products, the things that we export, are economically competitive in an increasingly low-carbon world,” she said. “And that means making sure that our products are clean.”

Jennifer Van Evra

Reader feedback

Last week, we asked you how your local recycling programs have changed. Here are some of your responses.

Josée Joliat: “Our local recycling program in Greater Sudbury had been going through a slow change of reducing the allotted number of garbage bags from three bags per week to two bags every two weeks. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed a few people who don’t live in our apartment complex come drop off their garbage in our dumpster…. I don’t think our community is well-educated on how to reduce their waste and properly recycle. This shift could have been a great opportunity for the city to encourage grocery stores to stock their shelves with products with less packaging. Unfortunately, low-cost products are often the ones with more packaging, and for families who can’t afford it, it makes it difficult to remain in the one bag/week limit.”

Marie-Ève Trigg: “I have tried to address this issue more than once where I’ve lived for the last 10 years, in Squamish, B.C…. I am talking about compostable plastics. The pandemic has pushed restaurants to takeout models for the most part and many pack their meals in compostable plastic containers and compostable plastic bags. In Squamish, we can’t put compostable plastics in our residential compost and they can’t be recycled, either; they’re garbage once we go home with our takeout food. Most residents put them in their compost or recycling tote, hoping to do the right thing somehow. 

“The answer I was given, when I asked the district’s sustainability team about what could be done to stop contaminating our recycling and compost products, was that we’re supposed to bring them back to the restaurant or store’s compost bin to be sent to the proper composting facility that can process these items into compost. I am also a bit skeptical about this idea — are they really all 100 per cent biodegradable or are they breaking down into microplastics? Out of sight, out of mind, maybe?”

Arlene Hamilton: “Our local recycling facility north of Kingston, Ont., no longer takes any kind of plastic bags.… That entails a lot of plastic like cereal box liners, chip bags, bread and milk bags, fruit bags, etc., etc. We need to do jugs of milk like the western provinces and find another kind of container that will break down to replace plastic. I try to use my mesh bags for fruit, etc., but it costs more than buying fruit in bulk bags.”

Geoffrey Pounder: “My small town of Rocky Mountain House, Alta., does not have recycling pickup. It’s up to individuals to transport recyclables to the recycling station. So there’s an extra energy, air pollution and climate cost to recycling. Load up your two-tonne SUV with cereal cartons and tin cans and drive 30 blocks round-trip. How much energy have you saved? The town recently moved the recycling station from a not very convenient location to an even less convenient location farther away from residential areas in the industrial district on the edge of town. Forcing people to drive. You may have to adjust your watch to a different time zone. Convenient for those on their way to visit relatives in Saskatchewan. Probably won’t discourage car drivers. But I don’t drive. I haul my recyclables in a wagon. Now I have to walk another 16 blocks. The recycling station needs to be located where people live.”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There’s also a radio show and podcast! This week, What on Earth looks at the hope for hydrogen in our energy future and the concern Canada’s plan isn’t green enough. What on Earth airs Sundays at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. You can also subscribe to What on Earth on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: California’s emissions reductions experiment

For a long time, one of the most consistent counterarguments to taking the necessary steps to reduce carbon emissions has been that it will wound the economy. It’s true that transitioning from a cheap but dirty fuel like coal to solar power — to cite one example — is a costly adjustment (although much less so than it was even five years ago). But the state of California has shown that committing to a broader drawdown of carbon can happen while the economy surges. The graphic below, based on data from the California Air Resources Board, shows that between 2000 and 2018 the West Coast state managed to reduce its emissions (keeping them below 1990 levels) while gross domestic product grew by about 60 per cent. (Note that the population grew in that time as well.) Many people have argued that economic growth is ultimately bad for the environment in the long term, but California’s experiment shows that carbon reduction won’t necessarily hurt GDP. What’s more, California isn’t the only example of this — the U.K. reduced emissions 29 per cent over the past decade while growing its economy by 20 per cent.

california emissions

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • Lake Baikal in Russia is the world’s oldest and deepest freshwater lake. With its stunning topography and jewel-like ice formations, Baikal has become an increasingly busy tourist attraction. That popularity could have a downside for the local ecology, as this piece by our CBC colleagues demonstrates.

  • Purolator is the first courier company in Canada to launch an all-electric delivery fleet, in Vancouver. To do that, the company has partnered with California’s Motiv Power Systems, which provides the battery-powered undercarriage that propels its Ford F-59 vehicles.

Scientists uncover traces of climate history by cracking open narwhal tusks

narwhal tusks
(Sebastian Kahnert/dpa via AP)

Want to see the impact of climate change? Crack open a narwhal tusk.

A team of researchers from Denmark, Canada, France and Greenland did exactly that in a new study published March 10 in the journal Current Biology. The aim was to find out how the animals have been affected by climate change over the past 50 years.

A male narwhal’s single, unicorn-like tusk is formed by dozens of layers of bone. Over the course of each year, a narwhal creates a new outer layer, preserving old bone layers beneath.

Like an ancient tree, cracking open a narwhal tusk reveals, in the authors’ words, “an invaluable archive of ecological information” across the animal’s 50-year lifespan, which scientists can use to deduce conclusions about their eating habits, migration and exposure to pollution.

This data makes it possible to “explore rarely captured fine-scale, individual-level responses to environmental change,” the study says, like how a particular narwhal may have reacted to greater areas of open ice in a warming Arctic.

But more than individual behaviour, the tusks have a “unique capacity to characterize” the cumulative impacts of climate change on Arctic animals, building on more common point-in-time data that doesn’t show how one bad year affects another.

In the study, Rune Dietz of Aarhus University in Denmark and Jean-Pierre Desforges of McGill University in Montreal, together with a team of international researchers, analyzed the layers of 10 narwhal tusks gathered from northwestern Greenland between 1962 and 2010.

The results offer what the authors call a “rare insight” into the behaviour of these animals as they adapted to a rapidly changing climate.

The narwhals under study slowly changed their main source of food from species found under ice caps to open-ocean species like capelin and polar cod, adjusting their behaviour, migration and diet as Arctic ice receded.

As they did so, researchers found the levels of mercury contained in the tusks’s layers dropping, as their reliance on halibut in the more polluted coastal waters of Greenland tailed off.

But the tusks show that trend has recently been upended. While it’s normal for animals to accumulate mercury over time as they consume the small concentrations found in their prey, Dietz and Desforges found mercury concentrations in the tusks increased rapidly between 2000 and 2010.

The research isn’t certain why, but suggests it could be due to increased greenhouse gas emissions in southeast Asia or a result of increased concentrations lower down the food chain in narwhal prey.

Whatever the cause, it’s not unique to narwhals. Similar studies have found rising concentrations of mercury in polar bears and Arctic foxes occurring over roughly the same period.

Mercury, a potent neurotoxin, can be dangerous to animals when it accumulates at high levels.

Overall, the authors say the study offers an “unprecedented insight” into narwhal adaptability and overall health during a period of rapid change in their environment.

Considering the large number of narwhal tusks in museums and collections around the Arctic world, it’s no surprise that scientists are excited they can be used in this way — as an ever-expanding timeline of the Arctic environment, written in bone.

John Last

Stay in touch!

Are there issues you’d like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at whatonearth@cbc.ca.

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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