If nuclear power is the key to Canada’s green future, Ottawa needs to say it — now

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There was an awkward moment in Glasgow in early November when Justin Trudeau spoke out in favor of using nuclear power to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Embarrassing because Steven Guilbeault — his new Minister of the Environment, whom the Prime Minister paraded around the world climate summit as proof that he was serious about fighting climate change — said something very vaguer a day earlier.

It was confusing for industry leaders and investors. Guilbeault, a former environmental activist with a history of opposition to nuclear power, has not turned his back on his past. Trudeau made a point of clarifying the next day, reminding the public that all options, including nuclear, are on the table when it comes to reducing greenhouse gases.

This seething tension must be resolved if Canada is to make serious progress toward a low-carbon economy, and it must be resolved quickly.

In less than three months, the federal government announces that it will release its plan to dramatically reduce emissions by 2030, a first step towards moving the Canadian economy to a position of net zero emissions by 2050.

The coming weeks will be about the “how” – and it’s really, really hard. The building blocks we decide on now are the ones industry and the financial sector will focus on, invest in and develop for decades to come. Government policy – ​​through subsidies, prices, regulations and penalties – will be a deciding factor on which mix of energy sources will be our future.

The highly respected International Energy Agency has just completed an assessment of Canada’s energy policies — the first since 2015 — and released the results this week. He says clean electricity is key to Canada’s transition.

So far, we’re in great shape on that front. The IEA points out that 83% of Canada’s electricity production comes from non-emitting sources, mainly hydroelectricity and some nuclear. This figure is expected to reach 90% by 2030.

But if we want to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, we don’t have enough electricity or other clean alternatives to compensate for our insatiable thirst for energy. A massive increase in clean electricity is essential to meet demand – a doubling or tripling of electricity from non-emitting sources, according to IEA figures.

It means serious work, money and a supportive policy – right now.

We are not starting from scratch. The federal government has already pledged to achieve a net-zero electricity grid by 2035 and promised to legislate the widespread use of zero-emission vehicles by then as well. He also talked about working with the provinces and spending money to connect all hydroelectric sources in the country to create an east-west network.

But expanding nuclear power is a key part of the mix.

“The role of nuclear power is recognized as fundamental to achieving and sustaining Canada’s climate change goals and the technology is seen as a long-term source of baseload electricity supply,” the IEA says.

He is referring to small modular reactors, which Conservative Prime Ministers lobbied for, and which are only a small part of government policy today. But they are still in their infancy and they still need a lot of innovation to make them practical. More importantly politically, they need the federal authorities to give them a stamp of approval, and probably more funding as well.

There is a similar controversy surrounding the oil and gas sector. If Canada is to continue to produce substantial amounts of oil and gas, we need to capture, use and store carbon to capture emissions before they float into the air. But purists see federal funding for carbon capture as a subsidy to the oil sector, allowing it to continue producing when in fact it should be pulling out and switching to investments in truly clean energy.

Ottawa is poised to put a cap on oil and gas emissions and then reduce that cap over the years – a goal that is much easier for oil and gas producers to achieve if they have affordable and efficient carbon capture. The federal government has begun implementing tax incentives for carbon capture, signaling its support. But it is not at all clear that everything is in it.

It’s not just a matter of different emphases within the federal cabinet. It’s about how resilient our economy will be over the next 30 years, as the Bank of Canada and the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions made clear in a new study released Friday.

They warned of weaker long-term economic growth and sudden, large losses for financial institutions and investors if there is a long delay in developing policy that pushes the private sector to move on. to a low-carbon economy.

Commodity prices, which underpin much of Canada’s wealth, will inevitably decline, they said. And we all have a lot of work to do to prepare for it if we want to keep our prosperity intact.

“We have time, but no time to lose,” said OSFI Deputy Superintendent Ben Gully.

The starting point is clarity and conviction from regulators and politicians.

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