Dec. 9, 2021

New UCalgary research shows need for Canada’s oilsands to go carbon-negative

Team uses new approach to determine Earth's capacity for carbon emissions
Cenovus Christina Lake oil sands project
Cenovus Christina Lake oil sands project Cenovus

A multidisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Calgary believes a rapid transition from zero-carbon to carbon-negative in Canada’s oilsands industry is needed to reduce the country’s carbon footprint.

Dr. Marwa Hannouf, PhD’18, and Dr. Getachew Assefa, PhD, of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, along with Dr. Ian Gates, BSC (Eng)’90, PhD, of the Schulich School of Engineering, have penned a new research paper analyzing the oilsands.

Their aim was to answer a major question: Is a sustainable carbon-negative industry possible?

For the first time, they used the “planetary boundaries” approach — a concept involving Earth system processes that contain environmental boundaries — to identify the threshold of carbon emissions that industry should meet to be environmentally sustainable in absolute terms within the carrying capacities of our planet.

Is net-zero enough?

In the paper, published by Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, the researchers conclude that reducing emissions by 10 to 20 per cent annually won’t help industry stay within its carbon budgets under climate-relevant thresholds.

Assefa says we are seeing some energy companies trying to find new ways and opportunities to reduce emissions, with some committing to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

But the question is: Is that enough? Our study here shows that actions should go faster and deeper than zero-carbon to being carbon-negative.

The research shows a carbon-negative industry is required where a reduction of 101.5 to120 per cent of current emissions intensity is needed, depending on when the needed transition begins.

Some opportunities being presented for this include hybrid renewable-oilsands operations and hydrogen from oilsands resources.

Who needs to get involved?

In the eyes of the paper’s authors, collaboration will be key moving forward.

“We are already seeing pressure on companies from stakeholder groups including investors, environmental groups and governments to improve environmental performance,” Gates says. “Acting fast is key, but, to turn the page, it isn’t only the role of industry, but support is needed from governments, policy-makers and technology developers.”

There is also the added question about the global response.

“We don’t have a lot of time and need to act fast moving forward,” Hannouf says. “While the Paris climate change agreement has set up the high-level targets, each country needs to find the best ways to follow those targets.”

Hannouf adds they are now working on a new research paper discussing options and opportunities available for industry to be carbon-negative, discussing what needs to be done specifically and what it means to be carbon-negative at the company, technology and policy level.