To solve the climate crisis, let’s have a race – first to net zero wins

This column is an opinion from Michael Binnion, the executive director of the Modern Miracle Network and CEO of Questerre Energy Corporation. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

To solve the climate crisis, let’s have a race – first to net zero wins!

As humanity grapples with the environmental challenges of a population expected to grow to 10 billion people by 2050, we need all hands on deck to save the planet.

The “great reset” and new “green economy” approaches that seek to phase out our conventional energy options, risk being too little and too late. We need action. Soon. 

I say, let’s make this a fair race and give all energy industries a chance to solve the net zero energy problem. It promises to be exciting because in this race the dark horse of oil and gas just might be the unexpected winner. 

I’m placing my bet there, no need to see the odds first. Let me tell you why.

Technological change a constant

First and foremost, no one does innovation and improvement like Canada’s energy industry. The oil and gas industry of today is nothing like the oil and gas industry of 15 years ago, which was dramatically different from the one of 30 years ago. Technological change is a constant in oil and gas and few industries are as quick to follow and reward successful innovators. And to build upon innovation.

This leads to the emerging concept of a circular economy. Most of us know that CO2 is the building block of life that mother nature recycles into growing forests and every other form of life, including you and me. But that is not all, a myriad of industrial products from cement to calcium carbonates to fertilizers are also made from or with CO2. Circular economy technologies seek to duplicate those natural CO2 recycling processes with industrial processes that make useful commercial products.

Incredibly, using technologies that exist today, we can turn CO2 from a disposal problem into a useful feedstock. Mimicking mother nature, we can transform CO2 into valuable products. There are already companies working to commercialize CO2 conversion technologies for ethylene, ethanol, methanol, propanol, calcium carbonate, magnesium carbonate, cement, concrete, and many other everyday products. There are also high-tech carbon nanotubes, carbon fibre, and graphene possibilities. 

Shell Canada’s Quest carbon capture and storage project at the Scotford Upgrader north of Edmonton. If we apply the three energy Rs – reduce, recycle, and return our emissions underground, oil and gas can get to net zero first, according to Michael Binnion. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

There is even a high-end and extremely pure vodka, produced from CO2, that is commercially available online today. I like to say organic chemistry is cool, and Air Vodka proves me right.

As part of the circular economy, we can convert fossil fuels to zero emissions hydrogen for energy and create an industrial quality source of CO2 to use as a feedstock to make things.

We can apply the three energy Rs – reduce, recycle, and return our emissions underground. A lot of that technology already exists and is advancing rapidly. This circular economy model has the advantage of bolting on to our existing energy systems, and, for many technologies, it does so at lower costs than other renewable energy sources. 

More breakthroughs inevitable

Opponents of Canada’s energy industry assume that oil and gas technology is static. In fact, it is changing rapidly and the industry has only just begun to explore these opportunities. If history is a guide, as these emerging carbon conversion technologies roll out, we will inevitably see breakthrough improvements in efficiencies and economics.

So why am I betting on oil and gas to win the race to net zero?

Because wind and solar have farther to go to get to the net zero finish line than oil and gas. They need rare earths, electronics grade silicon, and lots of concrete and steel – and all of those need oil and gas. You cannot build a windmill with a windmill but soon you will be able to build a zero emissions windmill with fossil fuels derived from the three Rs of the circular economy. That race is on. 

It’s a race that no matter who wins, the environment wins. With all hands on deck we have a chance to meet the energy demands of the 10 billion people expected by 2050 with a higher standard of living, but smaller environmental impacts than today.

Where do you put your bets?

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