Net-zero needs natural resource innovation

Margareta Dovgal: New innovations in mining, energy and aquaculture offer solutions to environmental and economic troubles.

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Margareta Dovgal, managing director of Resource Works.

Innovation and technology are driving changes in natural resource sectors, from mining to energy and aquaculture. Emerging technologies in these industries will be critical as Canada strives to meet its climate goals while reducing the economic burden on citizens.

Innovation and technology are driving change

It's no secret that electrification, from electric vehicles and beyond, requires an enormous expansion of mining activity. That presents a tremendous opportunity for BC, which is home to countless precious minerals and metals in high demand. But an unfortunate by-product of mining is mining waste, including those sometimes left unresolved in tailing ponds for decades.

The world is on track to need far more metals and minerals as electrification continues. That has to be matched with improved remediation technology. It has never been more critical that good ideas can hit commercial scale quickly. When that's satisfied, massive challenges can instead become phenomenal opportunities for prosperity and sustainability.

Another environmental challenge is becoming an economic opportunity through hydrogen energy. Once a pipedream, hydrogen has entered the realm of the possible and scalability. British Columbia is seeing incredible investment in the energy, driven by the growing demand for the fuel as well as our provincial government's enthusiasm to clear the way forward for both domestic hydrogen consumption and production for use further afield.

Not only are producers eager, but potential consumers are already showing interest. One example is Amazon's commitment to massively 'hydrogenize' its delivery fleet over the next decade.

Fortunately, we have abundant resources to make develop hydrogen energy. There are a few different ways to produce hydrogen, one of which is using the abundant natural gas found in BC. When paired with carbon capture, it becomes a powerful tool on the path to net-zero emissions.

A newly proposed hydrogen project in Port Moody, being championed by Fortis BC, Suncor Energy and Hazer Group, would make "turquoise" hydrogen (as opposed to blue or green hydrogen). The project would take the removed carbon and convert it to synthetic graphite, turning a by-product into a value-added product. The hydrogen produced can then go to power cars while the graphite can then be used in manufacturing, including in making electric batteries.

Also on the coast, one of BC's largest salmon farming operations (Grieg Seafoods) is deploying new technology at its Gold River Hatchery on Vancouver Island. The technology promises to reduce the amount of time farmed salmon spend in the ocean, which comes with both real economic and environmental benefits.

It also mitigates concern about farmed fish mingling with wild populations, which is the federal government's main rationale for its controversial forced phasing-out of open-net salmon farming operations in coastal waters (and which had circumspect scientific support to begin with).

Given the historical, cultural and economic value of salmon, it is not a surprise that decision-makers would be extra risk-averse to operations. But with a growing environmental and economic case to be made for open-net salmon farming, it's important that decisions are made rationally. Communities that depend on salmon farming, like Campbell River, should be taken into account. Their wellbeing must be a core part of the calculation, as well as the economic value that responsible fish farms bring to the whole province.

This is something well understood by many communities, including Indigenous ones. Last year, First Nations on Northern Vancouver Island put forward a proposal for an Aquaculture Zone that would support its efforts towards self-governance and self-owned prosperity. The Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations fundamentally believe that aquaculture can live alongside the protection of critically important wild salmon. They have actually been quite scathing of the federal government's recent decision to only extend some fish farm licenses for two years.

Given the considerable innovation taking place in industries like mining, energy and salmon farming, it's important that government understands the future trajectory and value of responsible, sustainably managed resources. It's also critical that they can communicate a positive vision for the future to members of the public concerned about affordability, even as we race to decarbonize and improve our environment.

Climate goals depend on public support

New polling commissioned by the University of Ottawa's Positive Energy initiative has found that three-quarters of Canadians have heard of the country's net-zero target. Two-thirds support the continued growth of oil and gas exports and two-thirds think that Canadian energy can help offset less sustainable fossil fuel energy produced elsewhere around the world. Meanwhile, 51% (down from 54% last year) would like to see more ambitious action on climate change.

That last point suggests a split in public opinion that government, business, and innovators need to bridge. The cost of adapting to climate change will only increase. At the same time, citizens are already feeling the cost of climate action, leading to declining support.

"Overall, Canadians score governments very poorly on key aspects of energy and climate decision-making, including providing an attractive investment environment for clean energy projects, collaborating with one another to balance economic, environmental and energy objectives, and ensuring energy is affordable," reads the poll results.

So where does Canada go from here?

When it comes to climate goals, it's critical that government secures the support of the general public. To do so, it needs to communicate the long-term value of these targets. It also needs to ensure that success results in a better material quality of life for residents.

Technology is a critical part of this, providing a cohesive thread between where we are today, how we got here, and where we are headed. It has never been more important when it comes to securing the quality of life and affordability the public expects as governments seek to mitigate the negative impacts of living in a highly industrialized global society.

Nothing is free, but with the right support, we can find the sweet spot between advancing environmental priorities while also building prosperous communities. Innovation will be key to bridging the gap.

Margareta Dovgal is the managing director at Resource Works. Follow her on Twitter for more hot takes on natural resources and making the world a better, more prosperous place.

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