IEA praises Canada clean energy transition efforts

Canada’s electricity system is amongst the cleanest in the world, thanks to hydro and nuclear power, a policy review by the International Energy Agency (IEA) has found. Launching the report on 13 January, IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol praised Canada’s leadership in the development of small modular reactors (SMRs) and expressed the agency’s support for the Canadian government’s “ambitious” clean energy transition.

The IEA regularly conducts in-depth peer reviews of its member countries’ energy policies, a process the agency says supports energy policy development and encourages the exchange of international best practices and experiences. Canada 2022: Energy Policy Review was drafted following a virtual in-depth review which took place in February 2021, when the IEA’s team met with Canadian government officials, energy companies, interest groups, research institutions, and other organisations and stakeholders, with information on subsequent policy developments gathered from government and private sector sources.

Since the last IEA review in 2015, Canada has made a series of enterprising international and domestic commitments to put the country on a path towards transforming its energy system, the report says. Canada’s electricity system is already 83% non-emitting – thanks to the “dominance” of hydropower and an “important role” for nuclear – and among the cleanest in the world, and the nation has set a target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 40‑45% by 2030 from 2005 levels and to reach net zero emissions by 2050. “Canada has shown impressive leadership, both at home and abroad, on clean and equitable energy transitions,” Birol said.

Policy measures including a carbon pricing scheme, clean fuel regulations, commitments to phase out unabated coal use by 2050, life extensions to existing nuclear power plants and measures to decarbonise the transport sector are already in place. The role of nuclear energy is recognised as fundamental to achieving and sustaining Canada’s climate change goals, with nuclear seen as a long-term source of baseload electricity supply and SMRs considered a key priority.

Canada has for many years been a “cornerstone” of secure global energy markets and now is a leader in the clean energy transition, Birol said, but more remains to be done to build on progress so far. The report makes several policy recommendations to achieve this, but Birol chose to highlight three: to define precise pathways to net zero by 2050 for Canada’s energy system and develop national emissions reduction strategies for key sectors; reducing “upstream” emissions in the goal and gas sectors; and to increase federal funding to accelerate R&D and innovation of clean energy technologies.

“I would also like to make emphasis here and appreciate Canada’s leadership in the context of small modular reactors … in all these areas and others, we at the IEA are very happy to support the Canadian government’s efforts as it undertakes an ambitious clean energy transition,” Birol said.

The report acknowledges Canada’s ambitious efforts and historic investments to develop pathways to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and ensure a transition that aligns with the objective of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson said.

“Let me be clear: this review matters,” he said. “Canada faces challenges and opportunities that are unique … Canada is blessed with an abundance of natural resources that position us to be a global leader in clean energy. We have ample land for solar and wind farms, vast water systems for hydroelectric power, geological formations [that could be used] for the sequestration of captured carbon, critical minerals for clean technologies, the uranium needed for nuclear energy and significant traditional sources of energy.” These resources, he said, must be harnessed in ways that “make sense, environmentally and economically” at a regional level, and this is the government’s focus.

Nuclear recommendations

Nuclear is the second-highest source for electricity generation in Canada after hydropower, accounting for 8.9% of total energy supply and 15% of total electricity generation in 2020.

The report makes several policy recommendations that are specific to nuclear. These are: to assess the long-term contribution that the existing Candu nuclear fleet and nuclear new build, particularly SMRs, could play to meet Canada’s net zero climate goals for 2050 through both low-carbon electricity and heat; to offer “timely” federal support for ongoing SMR projects under discussion at the provincial level, ensuring the required policy reforms are in place to allow for the licensing and construction of the first demonstration projects expected later this decade; to foster international collaboration, notably for international licensing of innovative SMR technologies and the use of Candu technologies; and supporting the Nuclear Waste Management Organisation in its mandate to select a site for a deep geological repository by 2023, while ensuring that options remain open for potential fuel recycling “if the need and/or opportunity arises”.