Episode 4
November 24th 2021

On the Road Again

Read the transcript

Chúk Odenigbo: Oh, wow, that is a hard question. What does bring me joy and meaning in my life outside of work? Ironically, my work is what brings me joy and meaning in life. That's why I do what I do. [laughs]

Polly Leger: Meet Chúk. He grew up in Calgary, and is now based in Gatineau, Quebec.

Chúk: My name is Chúk Odenigbo. And I'm one of the founding directors of Future Ancestors Services.

Polly: If there’s a top 30 under 30 list somewhere in Canada, he’s probably on it.

Chúk: So future ancestor services is a Black, Indigenous-owned youth-led services enterprise. You know, we don’t want people facing the same barriers that we faced. But in that same vein, we also recognize that our ancestors made some mistakes. And so it is up to us, as the future, to fix those errors.

Polly: Back in 2009, he was starting university, and becoming interested in the environmental movement, but….

Chúk: The messaging of that time period was very much based on the idea of almost going backwards in time, right. It was very much like, ‘Oh, carbon footprint, you need to stop flying’. Which makes no sense to me, because as a first generation Canadian, I have family that live all over the world. ‘Stop flying’ means cut yourself off from your family.

And then, you know, as a Canadian, we live in the second largest country in the world. We don't have a great public transit infrastructure. And so someone from the west who decided to go to university in the east to maximize my educational opportunities, ‘stop flying’ also meant, stay home, and stay limited to what you have access to in the town that you're in. Which, you know, I didn't believe in.

So I sort of already had those barriers forming. And then when I’d appear in these environmental movement spaces, I was often the only racialized person. Not even the only black person, the only racialized person. The only visibly person of color. Oftentimes I was the only Francophone. A lot of these movements happened uniquely in English. And I said to myself, or maybe this isn't, for me, this isn't my thing, right. I didn't have the language to describe it. I didn’t say, oh racism, I didn't have the language to say or obstacles, microaggressions, oppression. But all I knew was, this is a space that's not for me, I’m not welcome in these spaces.

Polly: Chúk’s done a lot to make spaces for young, Black, Indigenous people of colour within the climate movement, without rejecting technology, or travel.

Chúk: I wanted to embrace the modernity that had made my life so wonderful, right. A lot of these inventions of these concepts, a lot of these modernisations that we've had, have been key factors in detaching from a past of slavery, enabling people of various identities to fully participate in society, even with the barriers society still had, and still has still to this day.

So I don't take advancements lightly. I don't take technological advancements lightly because they have had really positive impacts on what it means to be a person of various identities in what is currently Canada.


Polly: That struggle in the climate movement between embracing modernity in one hand, and at the same time rejecting it, by, you know, not flying -- is something I think a lot of people can relate to.

Shaghayegh: Right, and we’ll get to greenhouse gases in a second, but it’s worth remembering that people travel for all kinds of reasons. So telling people not to fly when we lack solid, low carbon transit infrastructure can be deeply alienating, like Chúk said. And when we look at the climate movement this messaging really limits who can participate.

Polly: Climate action can’t just be for people who look a certain way or fit into a certain tax bracket.

Shaghayegh: So, air travel is a necessity, and we know that it’s responsible for about 5% of the whole world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But a meaningful way to change the carbon footprint of the aviation industry isn’t going to come from individual choices, like buying a carbon offset when you get your ticket.


Polly: Yeah, the bad news is that those don’t really work. By this point in this series--

Shaghayegh: You know what we’re getting at.

BOTH: It has to come from the halls of power.

Polly: Whether or not you decide to hop on that flight you’re thinking about, transportation IS a major climate issue.

Shaghayegh: Transportation makes up just almost a quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. It is the second largest source of emissions by sector. just edged out by the oil and gas industry.

Polly: That includes the emissions from driving your car, or taking a diesel bus to work, and freight. Increasingly, the way we ship goods, by rail, sea, air or road, is playing a major role in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Shaghayegh: Today, we’re getting into all of it. Our guest, Colleen Kaiser, and National Observer founder Linda Solomon Wood talk about why electric cars aren’t the only solution

Colleen Kaiser: We don't just want everyone to get an electric vehicle, we actually want what's called modal shifting, we want people to use cars less.

Shaghayegh: And, are hydrogen fuel cells what’s going to make long-distance hauling carbon friendly?

Polly: Or is the way hydrogen’s produced a trucking mess?

Shaghayegh: And is Carbon Capture and Storage our golden ticket? Or is it that foolish gold?

Tape: 20 years ago, we told you that by today, CCS would capture 5000 million tons of co2 per year. Today, the world can barely capture 10.

Shaghayegh: I'm Shaghayegh Tajvidi

Polly: And I’m Polly Leger. From Canada’s National Observer this is Race Against Climate Change


***

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***

[Sounds of the port]

Polly: Shaghayegh, do you want to go on a little trip?

Shaghayegh: I’m still terrified of pandemic travel but take me away!


Polly: Okay, close your eyes. Imagine this.

Polly: We are overlooking one of the largest ports in North America-- The Port of Vancouver. Can you hear the seabirds?

Shaghayegh: Oh, yeah.

Polly: There are cranes loading shipping containers onto trucks. Cranes lowering them onto freight trains. Shipping containers stacked everywhere.

Shaghayegh: Like these massive lego Blocks.


Polly: Exactly. Even in Covid-times, the port’s busy. About $200-billion dollars worth of goods goes through the port every year. Everything from raw materials to finished goods fan out from the port in trucks and trains to end up, eventually, in use somewhere in Canada.

Shaghayegh: At COP 26, Canada promised to invest in zero-emission shipping routes. Now that’s by sea. When we look at the whole picture of moving goods around, freight makes up nearly HALF of Canada’s transportation emissions.

Polly: Even if we somehow found a way to make the way people get around totally carbon-free, freight would still be a HUGE source of emissions.

Shaghayegh: But switching all of those ships and trains and 18-wheelers over to an engine that isn’t powered by fossil fuels is a long way off.

Dan Wicklum: It's just not feasible to have batteries as large as you would need them to power or to move trains around or, big boats or trucks. So that's where hydrogen comes into place.

Shaghayegh: This is Dan Wicklum, we’ll come back to him in a minute…
He’s talking about hydrogen fuel cells which could be the solution for decarbonizing long-haul transport. Instead of gas, fuel cells use hydrogen for power and emit only water. And these already exist! The challenge is how Canada’s going to scale them up.

Polly: I know there’s a ton of federal money that’s been promised for hydrogen solutions right now... but I don’t really know if I could describe what it is??

Shaghayegh: Okay, I’m reaching for some quick grade 9 Chemistry. Remember Dan?

Polly: Dan Wicklum, yes.

Shaghayegh: He’s part of Canada’s Net Zero Advisory Body, and the CEO of a new organization called The Transition Accelerator.

Dan: What we do is work with groups across the countries, frankly, to solve problems. We solve business challenges, social challenges, but whatever we do, we want to build deep emissions reductions into those solutions.

Shaghayegh: And, back to hydrogen.

Dan: So hydrogen, it's an element. And it's the most common element in the universe. It's a gas that's odorless and colorless at room temperature. But it has this very interesting property-- when you burn it, or when you use it in a machine called a fuel cell, you can get energy, you can get heat, but the only emission is water.

Polly: Wild!

Shaghayegh: Now, first you need to actually get the hydrogen. And you can do that in two key ways. One way is by splitting a water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen.

Dan: The second way to make hydrogen is to essentially upgrade a fossil fuel.

Shaghayegh: When Dan’s talking about upgrading a fossil fuel, in practise, natural gas is the fossil fuel he’s talking about. And the way hydrogen is made has this colour code. Here’s Dan again:

Dan: There's three major colors of hydrogen. One is green. And that is when you take the molecule water and use clean electricity to split it into hydrogen and oxygen.

Shaghayegh: This is also known as renewable hydrogen.

Dan: Blue hydrogen is when you upgrade a fossil fuel. And you take the byproduct, which is always carbon dioxide. And as long as you capture and then permanently store or use that carbon dioxide, it can be low carbon hydrogen, and that is called Blue.
And then Grey hydrogen is when you upgrade a fossil fuel, but you don't capture the carbon dioxide, and it just goes into the atmosphere.

Polly: Okay. So hydrogen is everywhere and you can break apart water to get it --green hydrogen. Or you can break apart a fossil fuel to get it, which is blue or grey.

Shaghayegh: Yeah, there you go. There’s a tension right now in the climate movement about the ways we currently make hydrogen, and whether that’s disastrous for the climate. Because Canada is really banking on becoming the next Blue Hydrogen hub. Remember, ‘blue’ means it’s capturing and storing any carbon byproducts from the making of that hydrogen.

Dan: So Alberta is one of the largest hydrogen producing jurisdictions in the world right now. So the companies that do that in Alberta, they're really technically good at this. They know how to make, distribute and use hydrogen.

Shaghayegh: Here’s the thing, right now, the main industrial use of hydrogen in Canada is in refining oil.

Polly: Okay-- but why isn’t Canada banking on green hydrogen? It seems like a no brainer?

Shaghayegh: Well, splitting molecules is an energy-intensive process. To make green hydrogen at a scale we’d need it would take way more renewable energy than we even have on the grid right now.

Polly: Okay so, there's a promise that blue hydrogen can be a bridge option that Canada can profit from until green hydrogen can be scaled up?

Shaghayegh: That’s the game plan that Dan’s talking about.

Dan: This is not being an apologist for the fossil fuel sector. And it's not being a promoter of no green electrolytic hydrogen. It's just this idea that for 30 years, we've had the luxury of not having a date by which we had to change a certain amount. Now we do-- Net Zero by 2050.

What we're concerned about is waiting 10 years for the price of green to come down, in which case we might just run out of time. So that's the way we think about it.

Shaghayegh: So the justification of Net Zero is that some things are going to be really hard to decarbonize-- making steel, making cement, really heavy industry stuff. So when you hear politicians talk about “Net Zero by 2050” it means industry can still emit greenhouse gasses as long as it’s balanced out somewhere else in the chain.


Polly: That’s the promise of blue hydrogen, right? That they bust-up molecules and capture all the nasty stuff while doing it.

Shaghayegh: Right, suck up all the carbon emissions from a factory and store it underground. But even though there has been a lot of hype around it, it’s not going great. Here’s and Australian spoof on Carbon Capture and Storage:

CLIP: CCS has missed every single target we’ve set for it. 20 years ago we told you that by today, CCS would capture 5000 million tons of CO2 per year. Today the world can barely capture 10.
Here at the Canadian government, we spent about a billion dollars to prove CCS works at this power plant, except it proved it doesn't by failing to reach its target every single year.


Polly: So polite way to say this is that maybe carbon capture and storage isn't ready for the spotlight yet.

Shaghayegh: Carbon Capture has a pretty mixed reputation. For some that might be a little too polite.


Polly: But I'm also thinking like, you draft a college player for the big leagues with like the most expensive rookie contract ever signed. And then they just have the worst season of all time, but you signed a 50 year deal with them. So you're just stuck with them.

Shaghayegh: I love this because you don't even watch sports

Polly: I nailed the metaphor though, right?


Shaghayegh: Close enough. The other concern is that if all the infrastructure is built up to keep using natural gas…

Polly: Which is what's used to create hydrogen.

Shaghayegh: You got it. That this will lock us into fossil fuels indefinitely. A recent paper critical of the Liberal’s hydrogen strategy is called “Correcting Canada’s “one eye shut” climate policy”.

Truzaar Dordi: The study was motivated by the fact that our climate strategy is not enough to meet our global commitments. And this is because of our continued support of the fossil fuel industry.

Shaghayegh: Truzaar Dordi is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Waterloo, and one of the paper’s authors.

Truzaar: We’re not discouraging investments in low carbon technologies, we certainly need those technological developments. But I think we're asking that we’re mindful of how those technologies are used, that we aren't increasing fossil fuel production along the way.

Shaghayegh: So right now there's Carbon Capture and Storage and then there's Carbon Capture Utilization and Storage, where you theoretically reuse all that captured carbon in industry.

Truzaar: Just to pump it back underground to produce more oil.

Polly: Wait, okay, so they try to capture carbon, which doesn't work all that well. And then they use it to flush out more oil? Isn't that just fracking?

Shaghayegh: Think fracking lite.

Truzaar: The planet doesn't care about how efficient we are, they just care about the total particulates in the air. So we argue that these technologies that do not curtail production are just another form of fossil fuel support.

Polly: Woof. Okay, I feel like we're so far away from hydrogen fuel cells for trucks here [sluptters] it's just ramped up exponentially so fast.


Shaghayegh: Okay. Even if carbon capture and storage worked perfectly, blue hydrogen has an emissions problem. This study came out this past summer, looking at the carbon footprint of blue hydrogen. I'm paraphrasing the findings here-- it's linked in our show notes-- but basically, the greenhouse gas footprint of blue hydrogen was more than 20% greater than just straight up burning natural gas for energy.


Polly: So the carbon footprint of creating this hydrogen is greater than just burning fossil fuels? Can you say ‘woof’ twice in one podcast episode?


Shaghayegh: Just let that sink in…

All of this is why there’s a major push against blue hydrogen from some parts of the climate movement -- who say: green hydrogen or bust.

Earlier, Dan made the argument that we need to do something right now, especially when it seems like hydrogen is our best bet for cutting emissions and freight. I also asked National Observer columnist Max Fawcett for his take.


Max Fawcett: The way I think about Blue hydrogen is it's a very useful bridge because it gets people to think about the energy transition not in terms of danger or threat. But in terms of opportunity. How can I profit from this? How can I make money from this? What is in it for me, and once they're on the bridge, they're probably not going to go back.

And I think carbon capture has value in the same sense, on its merits, it is probably not the best idea to be investing hugely in carbon capture. But to get Alberta across the river, it has enormous value, we need to use that carrot to get them to do it.

Shaghayegh: Like we said, hydrogen is a complicated one, and it will likely be part of heavy transport solutions. But the energy trade offs are really tricky. Like everything in the race to decarbonize, everything has consequences.

Polly: After the break, from moving goods to moving people. How electric vehicles for all may not be the solution we need.


***

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***

[S/U: Electric car song] EV song


Shaghayegh: We’ve all heard a lot about eclectic vehicless.

Polly: They’re everywhere. It’s the future!

Shaghayegh: And.. at the same time, we could do a whole section on the various costs related to electronic vehicles. Think human costs, and the mining of materials and so on. Some resources in our show notes-- go into them.

Polly: By 2035, you won’t be able to buy a new, gas-powered passenger vehicle in Canada. But, will new EVs on the road really get us to where we need to go?

Shaghayegh: At the end of the day, they’re a small part of the picture when it comes to the transport solutions we urgently need. This is where Colleen Kaiser comes in. She’s with the Smart Prosperity Institute at the University of Ottawa

Colleen Kaiser: I spend a good deal of my time looking how to decarbonize the transportation sector in Canada

Shaghayegh: She sat down with Linda Solomon Wood, National Observer’s Editor in Chief, and started off by putting freight emissions into perspective.

Colleen: The movement of goods is a growing source of emissions within the transportation sector and should actually outpace passenger road transportation by 2030. The majority of the emissions are related to goods on long haul trucks, and then inner city freight. Where you might have a good come into a hub, and then you'll have sort of your city freight vehicles. And that's, you know, when you get your Amazon package at the door, that's the vehicle that's coming in.

Linda Solomon Wood: Are you saying that, as we're seeing e-commerce rise we're also seeing transportation emissions rising?

Colleen: For sure. That's definitely one of the drivers.

Linda: So should I be ordering less on Amazon?

Colleen: Not necessarily. You should be doing what you want to be doing. I don't really think it's, you know, everything should be put on the individual. A better solution, given that the movement of goods and people is essentially a defining feature of modern society and underpins our economies, are to decarbonize these transportation modes.

Linda: So why are emissions from transportation so hard to cut?

Colleen: There's a couple things that make this sector particularly difficult to decarbonize. We have land use patterns that have co-evolved with the dominance of the personal automobile. Another big issue is if you already have a personal vehicle, the demand for gasoline is what is called price insensitive. If I raise the price of gasoline, you're still going to drive. The price would have to increase quite dramatically for you to actually make a different decision and how you get around.

Linda: The federal government is going to subsidize up to $5,000 for an electric vehicle. How far does a policy like that get us?

Colleen: We're asking people first to buy a new car, which not all Canadians do. You're already sort of talking about a certain segment of the population who can afford to buy a new car. And it is important that those subsidies are there, so that when they go to make a buying decision, that there is at least one less barrier, the cost difference is a little less. But it is critical that those vehicles are subsidized in the short to medium term.

Linda: And what about buying a used electric vehicle?

Colleen: So this is something I would really like to see government's try to figure out, subsidizing used vehicles. I think the subsidy of used vehicles starts to address equity issues and critiques that have been levied on EV subsidies, whereby you're essentially subsidizing a vehicle for someone who can already afford a new vehicle. So the government should get innovative in terms of addressing concerns around these equity questions. And I think looking at the subsidization of used vehicles is absolutely one way they could do that.

Linda: Let's say we were successful to getting everybody you know, every Canadian in an electric vehicle over the next two years. That leaves us with a lot of cars that are no longer being driven. And, I don’t know about you but I've noticed that often when we get tired of things and don't want them anymore, they find their way to the developing world. But do we do as we make this transition with the vehicles that we're no longer going to use?

Colleen: So there's sort of two parts there. And one is, we don't want everyone to get in an electric vehicle. If we did that very successfully, you're still not going to get the emission reductions you need. We don't just want everyone to get an electric vehicle, we actually want what's called modal shifting. We want people to use cars less. Things like getting people to switch to active transportation, subsidizing public transit expansion and operating costs to make public mass transit more accessible for people. That's a big part of this picture. You need the cars to be cleaner. But you also need cars to be driving less or just to have less cars overall. On the end of life side of things, and this is a really important discussion that I don't think gets enough sort of airtime, we need to be thinking through the whole lifecycle of any of these tools we're using. We tend to think of a solution-- let's put solar panels on everything. That's great. It's going to reduce emissions. They reached their end of life, and we haven't sort of gotten to the point where we've thought through what happens next. And that's something that governments need to think through before we get to that issue so that there are regulations in place to say this electric vehicle battery, for example, is now no longer useful for a car. It can get taken apart, disassembled, used in other applications, like backup energy storage for a hospital. So there needs to be innovative ways of thinking how you can reuse these materials, and essentially a circular economy mindset to ensure that you're not creating another problem when you thought you were driving a solution

Linda: With less than a decade to try and avoid really catastrophic climate disaster, where do you think government should be putting our energy as taxpayers and our money?

Colleen: In the transportation sector, I would say up the ambition. It's not that the things that they're doing are the wrong things. But it's probably time to up the ambition in terms of accelerating the pace of decarbonisation. And we need more of that at every level of government so that it's not, ‘this is going to be the cheapest thing to do’. But this is going to be cost effective, but it's also going to reduce emissions. We're also going to integrate some equity considerations. And to your previous point, let's also think about the material waste involved. And it shouldn't be a political process, it should be one based on evidence. It's a hard enough challenge as it is, if the government's working at odds within itself, you know, you've sort of lost before you've begun.


***


Polly: So we’ve talked about getting goods across Canada…

Shaghayegh: And people around cities..

Polly: And how exactly hydrogen is made.

Shaghayegh: And who’s being left out of conversations about climate, from the ones happening in Parliament to the ones you have with your friends.

Polly: In some ways transportation is extremely hard to cut emissions from. With Covid we’ve all been thinking about supply chains more than we probably ever did before. And in such a globalized world, the things that we use and eat usually come from thousands of miles away.

Shaghayegh: So there are some really hard choices out there. Not just around where you choose to spend your money, or eat fruit out of season, or if you should visit family far away….

Polly: We’re talking institutional choices.

Shaghayegh: What balance should there be between government mandates and the private sector when it comes to changing the ways people get around?
What kind of hydrogen should be used to cut emissions in the freight sector?

Polly: Do you go with the option available now which isn’t as clean as it bills itself? Or focus on a truly renewable solution that is going to need more time and money. Maybe more than we have? What will it take to get a great low carbon transit system so that we don't have to take planes all the time? Give me a bullet train!

S/U: “A train like no other”

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CREDITS

Shaghayegh: Special thanks this week to our guests, you can find more of their work in our show notes and way more climate reporting at nationalobserver.com



Polly: Canada’s National Observer wouldn’t exist without founder and Editor-in-Chief Linda Solomon Wood. This show was produced and edited by me, Polly Leger.

Shaghayegh: And me, Shaghayegh Tajvidi.

Polly: Promotions by Suzanne Dhaliwal. Artwork by Ata Ojani. Fact check this week by Luke Ottenhof.

Shaghayegh: Special thanks to Alison Gu, Azadeh Maroufmashat, Bob Howarth, James Wilt, Carolyn Kim, Jess Harris and the many people who spoke with us for background on this episode.


Polly: Final audio mix by Tyler Gillis at Aftertouch Audio

Shaghayegh: Music this week from Blue Dot Sessions.

Polly: Race Against Climate Change is a joint project from Canada’s National Observer and the Canadian Centre for Journalism. You can follow us on twitter and Instagram! @NatObserver

David Suzuki: Head to nationalobserver.com/subscribe. Trust me, it's worth it!



GUESTS:


CREDITS:

Final audio mix by Aftertouch Audio. Fact check by Luke Ottenhof. Artwork by Ata Ojani. Communications from Suzanne Dhaliwal. Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Additional sound from The Juice Media and Toddler Fun Learning, as well as Kleber_KGF, alphatone, barcelonetasonora and Glaneur de Sons from freesound.org

Special thanks to Alison Gu, Azadeh Maroufmashat, Bob Howarth James Wilt, Carolyn Kim and Jess Harris.


CLIMATE NERD RESOURCES:

Links to studies we mention in the show

Related articles from CNO: