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Clean versus renewable energy: What’s the difference?

Since declaring climate change a national emergency on June 7, Canadian government leaders across parties are moving to develop their own policies on the issue to demonstrate they are poised for action.

Terms such as clean and renewable energy are being used in climate plans. But what do they really mean?

An article from earlier this year points out that the terms clean energy and renewable energy are sometimes used interchangeably, leading to confusion. Clearly defining what these terms mean and including them in climate change policies will be essential as Canada works to lower emissions and meet international commitments.

According to the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy for Canada 2019-2022 (FSDS) clean energy is defined as “Renewable and non-emitting (such as nuclear) energy sources, and carbon capture and storage technologies, as well as the reduction of energy usage through energy efficiency.”

The FSDS defines renewable energy as “Energy obtained from natural resources that can be naturally replenished or renewed within a human lifespan.” Both definitions appeared for the first time in the Strategy’s Glossary of Terms in 2016 – the year the Paris Agreement was signed.

Yet Generation Energy, a report released by Natural Resources Canada in June 2018, refers to clean energy as “electricity produced from renewable energy (hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, etc.), as well as energy efficiency solutions.” Nuclear energy, the second largest low-carbon power source in the world, is left out of the definition entirely.

The term non-emitting is included separately in the report’s glossary defining it as “electricity produced from sources that produce no carbon pollution, such as hydro, wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal, and tidal.”

If these definitions continue to change from one policy document to the next, it could result in energy plans changing as well, which could slow progress.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently reported that global declines in nuclear power could result in severe strain on the energy grids of advanced economies. Renewables would have to ramp up at an unprecedented rate resulting in $1.6 trillion in investments. This could affect not only cost per kWh but delay our ability to lower emissions and establish energy security.

By following the example of the FSDS and designing national strategies that include non-emitting sources such as nuclear in the definition of clean energy, and including clean energy along with renewables as part of the clean energy mix, Canada will be more likely to lower emissions quickly and efficiently.

Consistent use of the terms clean energy and renewable energy in climate change policies is not just about preventing misunderstandings; it could represent the difference between meeting our climate targets and missing them.