Canada’s experience in the decarbonization of the energy sector may help countries in the CEE region develop climate strategies that would reconcile the high share of fossil fuels in the energy mix with the need to implement climate change policies. Canada-CEE cooperation in this sphere could lead to a deepening of transatlantic links.
Canada’s climate policy rarely becomes an object of interest in Central and Eastern Europe. There is little awareness that the country shares several similarities with countries in this region and, like them, is marked by profound contradictions due to the different interests of the western and eastern provinces. The economies of Alberta and Saskatchewan – strongly linked to oil and gas production and exports – have been striving to develop infrastructure that would allow for increased production and exports to Asian and European markets. On the other hand, the eastern provinces (primarily Quebec) consider climate policy a priority. As a result, Ottawa’s actions remain relatively limited, and existing programs and regulations, including the carbon tax, have not led to a breakthrough. Between 2016 and 2019, GHG emissions increased by 3.3 percent, and Canada is not yet on track to meet its Paris Treaty commitments.
Areas of Canada’s climate leadership
Ottawa, however, is trying hard to establish itself as a global leader in combating the climate crisis. Not only did the Trudeau government increase the country’s pledge to reduce CO2 emissions by 2030 from 30 percent to 40-45 percent, but it also set a target of carbon neutrality in 2050. Canada, along with Germany, has also promised to provide 100 billion USD to poorer countries to combat climate change. Moreover, Ottawa is taking a leadership role in the global trend to stop generating electricity from coal, as a co-founder (with the UK) of the Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA). Formed in 2017 at COP23, this organisation brings together national, provincial, state, and municipal governments that have either already moved away from coal or have pledged the phase-out of unabated coal power by 2030. Coal exit, according to scientists, is a key action without which it is impossible to meet the targets agreed in the Paris Agreement. The number of PPCA members has been growing steadily – from the original 27 to 96, including countries from the CEE region.
Coal phase-out in Canada as a lesson for the CEE region
While Canada’s progress in phasing out coal began slowly, the last two decades have brought significant efforts. First, Ontario eliminated its near-30 percent reliance on coal generation – an achievement that became the largest climate measure of its time in North America. Then, the province of Alberta – which is still heavily reliant on coal power – has radically accelerated its decarbonisation process in recent years (reducing it by 40 years, from an originally planned phase-out by 2061, to the current date of 2023). This ‘strange leadership‘ – as recently as 2015, Canada was described as one of the world’s ‘biggest climate laggards’ – may bring useful lessons for CEE countries. Importantly from a Polish perspective, in addition to climate action a key driver for coal phase-out in Ontario has been air quality and human health. Moreover, since moving away from coal is a key element of the Fit for 55 European Union strategy, an increasing number of countries have already set a date for their coal exit. In recent months a clear acceleration in declarations has been observed: new deadlines for coal phase-out set by Germany (2030), Czech Republic (2033), Slovenia (2033) and Ukraine (2035). The war in Ukraine provides another incentive for those CEE countries that depend on imported coal from Russia to switch to green technologies. Amazingly enough Poland, the most coal-dependent country in Central and Eastern Europe (almost 80 percent of energy), has only declared that the last coal mine is to be closed by 2049, a date that has not yet been approved by the European Commission. It is symptomatic that, although at COP26 Warsaw signed, together with 190 countries and organisations, the Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement, the Polish Ministry of Climate and Environment has still to clarify whether the declaration does not mean consent to coal exit in the 2030s but in the 2040s, because Poland is not ‘a developed country’. Nevertheless, at the diplomatic level Canada already actively supports regional coal phase-out efforts. For example eastern Wielkopolska or Walbrzych, a city with a former mining centre, have already joined the PPCA and declared the phasing-out of coal by 2030.
Canadian technologies can help decarbonize Central and Eastern Europe
A significant increase in energy prices in coal-dependent countries is forcing further debates on decarbonisation. It is becoming increasingly clear that coal-fired power generation does not make sense environmentally, but also economically. In Poland, where the production of 1kWh of electricity causes three times more emissions than the EU average, the current ETS carbon price calls for at least the urgent revision of the Energy Policy of Poland to 2040, adopted in March 2021. The strategy of shifting from coal to other energy sources could become the most important field of cooperation between Ottawa and Central and Eastern European capitals. Canadian experiences can be used in virtually any of the potential methods for decarbonisation. Several innovative solutions originating in Canada have become world models. For example the Polish oil company Orlen is already cooperating with the Canadian company Northland Power on the design a wind power plant in Baltic waters (the Baltic Power). Given Orlen’s recent decision to switch to gas technology at its Ostroleka power station, the experience of TransAlta, one of Canada’s major electricity producers, may prove useful as it ended coal power nine years ahead of the government’s deadline. Canada’s unique experiences with carbon capture usage and storage technologies (for example the Boundary Dam Carbon Capture Project) could become another area of cooperation, as they are recognised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as one of the mitigation pathways. Moreover, Canada is also developing modern nuclear energy solutions, including small modular reactors (SMRs). This is important in the context of the European Commission’s potential recognition of nuclear power as a green solution. In recent weeks, Ontario Power Generation and nuclear components manufacturer BWXT Canada have announced a collaboration to build a fleet of SNRs for Synthos Green Energy and PKN Orlen.
Opportunities for broader transatlantic cooperation
Canadian companies also have the experience to adapt power plants for the transition to hydrogen. Such moves are in line with the European Commission’s Hydrogen Strategy for a climate-neutral Europe. Under it, green hydrogen, produced by electrolysis and powered by renewable energy sources, is seen as the cornerstone of any strategy leading to the EU achieving greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050. Central and Eastern European countries are already showing the first signs of opening up to hydrogen technology – even Poland recently announced its own hydrogen strategy. As Germany plans to import 80 percent of its hydrogen, Berlin signed a cooperation agreement with Ottawa to explore the development of hydrogen technologies. Not only does Canada want to be the leading producer of hydrogen from natural gas and renewables, but it is the only jurisdiction in the Western Hemisphere that has reserves of all the minerals required to produce batteries for electric vehicles and fourteen of the nineteen metals and minerals required to produce solar panels. As the Canada-EU free trade agreement (CETA) is ready to serve as a platform for technology transfer, Ottawa sees environmentally sustainable technologies as an opportunity to fulfil its decades-long attempt to diversify its economic relationships. This might be a key issue for several Central European countries, including Poland, that are home to a growing number of battery plants.
CEE countries should pay close attention to Canada as its climate policies provide a useful example for the region in moving away from coal power. Leveraging this experience and establishing broader cooperation with Canada could facilitate the challenge of combining GHG reduction targets with competitiveness and overcoming the cost barriers of high investment costs and the need for economies of scale, and cooperation on the energy transition pathway can be mutually profitable. Moreover, the EU and Canada may find common ground in becoming independent of both Russia – when it comes to importing energy resources – and China – when it comes to supplying of raw materials necessary for green technologies.Marcin Gabryś is a one-time President of the Polish Association for Canadian Studies, he holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Jagiellonian University. His academic interests concentrate on Canada’s politics, Canadian foreign policy and the northern regions of Canada. Author of several books and articles. Visiting Research Fellow at York University, Western Washington University and University of Ottawa. Head of the Polish National Science Centre research grant "Canada as a selective power". Commentator on political events related to Canada.