Across Canada, academic researchers are working on practical solutions to reduce global warming, and build resilient communities
Canada has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2030 and achieve net zero by 2050.
Getting there won't be easy, but there is hope. Rapid action to reduce emissions of carbon and methane can still limit human-induced global warming.
Academic researchers from multiple scientific fields are working hand-in-hand with industry partners, government, civil organizations, Indigenous groups and local communities to co-develop and implement solutions that can reduce our carbon footprint. A warming world also means working with stakeholders nationally, regionally and locally on adaptation strategies that can protect people, nature, our prosperity and way of life.
Research Infosource interviewed several academic leaders from across Canada to learn more about their efforts to translate climate change research into action.
UNIVERSITY OF VICTORIA
Converting to clean energy - one community at a time
The University of Victoria is leading a new climate-fighting initiative that will help Canada achieve its target of net-zero emissions by 2050 - one community at a time.
Accelerating Community Energy Transformation (ACET) is a seven-year, $83.6-million initiative aimed at helping the 79% of Canadians living outside major cities, including rural, remote and Indigenous communities, reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and transform regional economies.
"We're taking a bottom-up approach to reach net zero by working with individual communities, building on work we've been doing in this area for over a decade. The first step is to understand the specific challenges that are slowing their transition, be it technology, adoption, implementation, regulatory barriers or business models," said Dr. Curran
Crawford, Executive Director of ACET, which received support from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund.
We’re taking a bottom up approach to reach net zero by working with individual communities,
building on work we’ve been doing in this area for over a decade.
Dr. Curran Crawford
Executive Director of Accelerating Community Energy Transformation (ACET), University of Victoria
ACET brings together more than 100 researchers and students from nine interdisciplinary areas of expertise, working in collaboration with over 40 partners, including five First Nations and three municipalities. Other academic partners include Royal Roads University, Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, the University of British Columbia and Yukon University.
Solutions will be designed in partnership with Indigenous and remote communities that rely on diesel, as well as grid-connected towns and municipalities. Many projects are already underway.
For example, prototype testing with the UVic-led Blind Channel off-grid tidal power project, near West Thurlow Island, is successfully demonstrating the potential for harnessing tidal currents to power off-grid communities. In Haida Gwaii, researchers are helping local residents explore their options for harnessing ocean waves and tidal flows to reduce their diesel usage.
In larger communities like Victoria, a collaboration with the city is studying how EV fast charging infrastructure can support the transition to climate-friendly transportation. For other communities, solutions may come in the form of green hydrogen or decentralized energy systems (microgrids) that combine renewable power and energy storage.
Crawford said each community will define their own energy, economic and social visions for the future.
"Lessons learned from these demonstrations will serve as case studies for communities around the world in how to harness their own natural resources to transition to greener and more resilient energy systems."
Supporting Indigenous climate leadership
Indigenous peoples make up 6.2% of the world's population and steward 22% of the world's surface - yet they are responsible for maintaining 80% of the biodiversity on earth. They are also on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
Despite being proven stewards of the environment for millennia, Indigenous peoples are not at the table when it comes to making important provincial, national or international decisions related to climate change and biodiversity.
A York University research team, comprised primarily of Indigenous and feminist scholars, is on a mission to help change that.
"Indigenous peoples in Canada demonstrate climate leadership through land-based practices, restoring Indigenous economies, and decolonial movements like #LandBack, but we're not fully consulted on important climate change issues. Our sovereignty is not respected, and our treaties are not fully implemented. As a result, Indigenous nations are not parties to international treaties like the Paris Agreement on climate change," said Dr. Angele Alook, Assistant Professor at York's School of
Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies, and member of the Bigstone Cree Nation in Alberta.
Alook and York law professor Dr. Deborah McGregor, from Whitefish River First Nation in Ontario, are leading a three-year project showcasing how Indigenous communities are using traditional knowledge and governance to address climate change. Their collaborators include Dr. Brock Pitawanakwat, also of Whitefish River First Nation, Dr. Alan Corbiere of M'Chigeeng First Nation in Ontario, and Dr. Graeme Reed, Anishinaabe from the Great Lakes (Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory).
The project employs Indigenous research methods that put Indigenous communities first, with a particular focus on amplifying the voices of women, gender diverse people, youth, Elders, and traditional knowledge keepers.
"Since we have Indigenous laws that require respect and reciprocity with the land, we are already climate leaders. This project aims to capture those stories and to let other researchers and policymakers know that Indigenous peoples are already doing this work," added Alook.
The research team is interviewing Indigenous leaders from Canada and at international forums like the United Nations Climate Change Conference. To maximize their impact and reach, findings will be shared through publications, as well as art-based approaches such as documentaries, photography and graphic novels.
"We don't want to just tell that sad story about climate change," said Alook. "We want to tell the story of how Indigenous knowledge, such as Indigenous laws of caring and decolonial feminist climate policy solutions, can provide a just transition to a more sustainable future."
Pinpointing methane leaks at oil and gas sites
Canada's commitment to cut 75% of all methane emissions from the oil and gas industry by 2030 depends on knowing exactly where - and how much - methane is being released.
A lab at Carleton University now has the answers.
The Energy and Emissions Research Lab (EERL), led by engineering professor Dr. Matthew Johnson, recently completed a baseline census, or inventory, of methane leaking from thousands of oil and gas sites across Western Canada. This first for Canada, and the world, provides a practical tool that governments and industry can use to reduce global warming by a quarter degree Celsius by 2050, and a full half degree by the end of the century.
This first for Canada, and the world, provides a practical tool that governments and
industry can use to reduce global warming.
Dr. Matthew Johnson
Scientific Director at Energy and Emissions Research Lab (EERL), Carleton University
"Now that we have these actual measurements and data, Canada has a real chance to quickly do something that matters with methane. We can bend the trajectory of warming and become a template for the world," said Johnson, who as Scientific Director at the EERL oversees a team of about 10 graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and research associates.
Methane is about 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a climate pollutant, and the energy sector is Canada's biggest source of national methane emissions. Using onsite optical gas imaging surveys and airborne LiDAR (a type of laser radar) at oil and gas sites across Western Canada, the EERL team found far higher methane emissions than previously reported.
"All the official data for how much methane is being produced are estimates, bad estimates it turns out," said Johnson.
The EERL has been able to replace those estimates with verifiable data, using high-resolution imagery that can pinpoint methane leaks in a single compressor, storage tank or other equipment.
Companies looking to export liquid natural gas (LNG), in particular, have an incentive to accurately measure their methane emissions.
"By meeting these targets, Canada's emerging LNG sector would be poised to deliver the cleanest product in the world while we're transitioning to zero-carbon energy sources," said Johnson, who describes himself as a pragmatic environmentalist.
Interest in the lab's data and methodologies is garnering interest from outside of Canada, including from Colombia and the United States.
Added Johnson: "If we're going to be successful in reducing methane emissions, we need to do this everywhere."
Turning CO2 into renewable fuels
Researchers at Queen's University have found a way to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into chemicals and renewable fuels.
The discovery, led by Dr. Cao Thang Dinh, makes this process more efficient by integrating the capture of CO2 and its conversion into a single step.
"Carbon capture is currently used in the oil industry to recover more oil, but that's not the kind of application that we want. We want to open up new economic opportunities for CO2 utilization that reduces our overall carbon footprint," said Dinh, who spoke to Research Infosource from Germany where he was receiving the Scientific Breakthrough of the Year award from the Falling Walls Foundation.
CO2 is a molecule that can be converted into several different molecules, including chemicals used to make polymers (plastics) such as polyethylene and polypropylene, as well as fuels like methane, methanol and ethanol.
But one of the biggest challenges has been the significant amount of energy, often sourced from fossil fuels, needed to convert CO2 into compounds.
Dinh developed an electrochemical process that reduces the amount of energy needed for CO2 capture and conversion. At the heart of this process is thin layers of catalyst - the material that converts the CO2.
As Dinh explained, the potential applications are game-changing.
"It would allow intermittent renewable energy like wind and solar to be converted into liquid fuel that could be easily stored as you would any other fuel," said Dinh, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Smith Engineering at Queen's.
Dinh's lab is also working with an industrial partner to convert oxygen in the air into hydrogen peroxide for wastewater treatment. Another project is looking at converting CO2 and nitrogen from the air to produce urea - a widely used fertilizer. This same chemical process can be used to convert water into useful applications.
Dinh's team has demonstrated the process works in a lab environment and estimates it will take another five-to-ten years to scale-up products using this technology. "As long as you have air, water and renewable energy," he said, "you could implement this technology anywhere in the world."
ONTARIO TECH UNIVERSITY
Fueling a resurgence in net-zero nuclear energy
Nuclear power is experiencing a resurgence as the world looks for powerful low-carbon energy sources to accelerate the world's transition to net zero.
One of the global scientific leaders in this space is Ontario Tech University, located 25 km from the Pickering and Darlington nuclear power plants, just east of Toronto, and 150 km from the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station on the eastern shore of Lake Huron.
In 2021, Ontario Power Generation renewed its longstanding research collaboration with Ontario Tech with a new $5-million investment.
"OPG is a big partner for us," said Dr. Les Jacobs, Vice-President, Research and Innovation at Ontario Tech. "We als, o have very close ties with Bruce Power, Atomic Energy of Canada and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Chalk River, as well as the whole nuclear supply chain."
Ontario Tech is the only Canadian university with an accredited undergraduate degree in nuclear engineering, and its students fill a critical need for skilled workers in the sector.
On the research side, the university has several top experts in hydrogen and small modular reactors (SMRs), including four research chairs. Ontario Tech is also home to Canada's first scientific centre for SMRs, as well as the Clean Energy Research Lab, which Jacobs describes as "Canada's top hydrogen research lab".
"We are also developing what we call a subcritical nuclear assembly, essentially a no-power small micro modular reactor that can be used for teaching and research."
In June, Ontario Tech was awarded more than $935,000 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to study SMRs. Like traditional nuclear reactors, SMRs use fission to create heat, but their smaller size offers a promising pathway to support Canada's low-carbon energy transition.
Those strengths were key in the International Atomic Energy Agency decision in 2021 to designate Ontario Tech as the IAEA Collaborating Centre for Canada on advanced nuclear power technology. It is studying how nuclear power, particularly SMRs, can be integrated into existing energy systems, including renewables.
"Our slogan at Ontario Tech is 'Tech with a Conscience' and nuclear fits with that," said Jacobs. "If you care about climate change, then nuclear is definitely a key part of the solution for Canada."
UNIVERSITÉ DE SHERBROOKE
Engineers build artificial river to mimic nature
Nearly 300 people were forced to evacuate their homes in Sherbrooke, Que. this summer when intense rainfall raised the risk of severe flooding from the Saint-François River. Research underway on an artificial river and watershed at Université de Sherbrooke could help communities across Quebec, and elsewhere, better predict and prepare for future floods.
Launched in 2021, the $2.8-million Multiscale Research Complex in Hydrology, Hydraulics, and Environment was designed to replicate real-world conditions for water flow and the presence of contaminants. This unique football field-sized facility includes a small river (50mx3m), a waterfall, and a pond the size of an Olympic pool that is fed by rainwater and melted snow, as well as state-of-the-art scientific equipment for analytical chemistry and water treatment.
The facility provides a realistic setting for testing hydraulic processes that are difficult to accurately reproduce in a laboratory. It draws on multiple scientific disciplines, including civil engineering, chemistry, and applied geomatics, with researchers collaborating with industrial, municipal and government partners.
"This testbed is a controlled, closed-loop system that mimics what occurs in nature," explained Dr. Jean-Pierre Perreault, Vice-President, Research and Graduate Studies, Université de Sherbrooke. "The goal is to demonstrate how water quality can be improved through better water management practices and new approaches and technologies for water treatment."
The goal is to demonstrate how water quality can be improved through better water management practices and
new approaches and technologies for water treatment.
Dr. Jean-Pierre Perreault
Vice-President, Research and Graduate Studies, Université de Sherbrooke
Studies will look at mitigating the effects of climate change on rivers, such as riparian strips or fish passes, and even developing new practices to help restore waterways. Other research is examining how the transport of sediments, erosion and the stabilization of riverbanks can help improve flood prediction.
The next step is to apply knowledge gleaned from the test facility to a real river. The university is currently seeking funding to study the Saint-François River, which is prone to spring floods as a result of ice jams that occur upriver.
"The science being done at this site is not only fundamental basic science, but something that can be applied and make a difference," added Perreault. "We want to give municipalities more advanced warning before disaster strikes."
Studying the impacts of climate change on water
Vulnerable communities in the Great Lakes watershed will be the first to benefit from a new cross-border effort to strengthen their resiliency to climate change.
Led by McMaster University's Dr. Gail Krantzberg and Dr. Drew Gronewold from the University of Michigan, the new Global Centre for Understanding Climate Change Impacts on Transboundary Waters will initially focus on the Great Lakes, a cross-border region shared by two Canadian provinces, eight U.S. states and more than 150 Indigenous communities. The findings will later be applied to other water systems that encompass or intersect multiple sovereign nations, including those of Indigenous Peoples.
As communities continue to see the threat to water resources due to climate change in the form of floods, droughts, worsening water quality, shoreline erosion and damage to homes and infrastructure, we are forced to adapt," said Krantzberg, professor of engineering and public policy at McMaster's W. Booth School of Engineering Practice, and an international expert on the health of the Great Lakes.
The new centre recently received CDN$3.75 million, along with USD$5 million from the National Science Foundation Global Centres - a joint initiative between the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the U.S. National Science Foundation, Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and UK Research and Innovation to encourage and support international collaborative research on climate change and clean energy.
Research teams - crossing disciplines, universities and communities - will model and project the impacts of climate change on water resources, improve the understanding of these impacts on ecosystems and diverse communities, and increase capacity for governance, management and disaster resilience based on community leadership engagement. The centre will include a special focus on collaborating with Indigenous nations.
Krantzberg says the centre's multidisciplinary approach ensures the knowledge gained will have widespread relevance to communities around the world.
"The tools and knowledge for adapting to worsening extremes must be consolidated or created with direct input from practitioners on the front line," she says. "The Global Centres will enable this work."
THOMPSON RIVERS UNIVERSITY
Wildfire research links experts and students
This past summer was the most destructive wildfire season on record in British Columbia and the most expensive, with insurable losses topping $720 million. Researchers predict the frequency and intensity of these fires will worsen as the planet warms.
Thompson Rivers University (TRU) is located in British Columbia's Interior region and has campuses in Kamloops and Williams Lake. The university's wildfire science team is the only one in Canada with two research chairs dedicated solely to wildfire science.
The research team is headed by Dr. Mike Flannigan, BC's first fire science research chair and an expert in studying the interaction of fire with weather and climate.
"We have a fantastic cohort of wildfire expertise at TRU, including Mike Flannigan, as well as a Canadian Research Chair in Fire Ecology [Dr. Jill Harvey] and an NSERC Industrial Chair in Ecosystem Reclamation [Dr. Lauchlan Fraser]," said Dr. Shannon Wagner, TRU's Vice-President Research.
The team of experts is supported by dedicated Master of Environmental Science students and enthusiastic undergraduate students pursuing their degrees in Natural Resource Sciences. These passionate individuals play a crucial role in conducting fieldwork, collecting and analyzing data, and actively participating in ongoing research projects. Their commitment not only strengthens the collaborative efforts within the research team but also contributes fresh perspectives and energy to advancing the work in wildfire science.
"Our students engage in collaboration with renowned researchers, and delving into the realm of wildfire science not only grants them invaluable chances for mentorship but also opens doors for the creation and mobilization of knowledge," said Dr. Wagner.
With rising temperatures resulting in increased drought conditions, Canada can anticipate longer and more extreme fire seasons. TRU has built a strong team of experts in wildfire science and ecological restoration and will continue to build capacity for wildfire science research at the university.
Advancing sustainable resource management
A centre of excellence at Saskatchewan Polytechnic launched in 2022 is providing a Regina-based company with a living lab to demonstrate a renewable fuel from prairie biomass that has the potential to reduce the potash industry's greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80%.
Prairie Clean Energy recently partnered with the Sustainability-Led Integrated Centres of Excellence (SLICE) to implement a pilot operation at Saskatchewan Polytechnic's field site near Moose Jaw.
"This project aligns perfectly with SLICE's focus on the circular economy," said SLICE Director Dr. Robin Smith. "Their initial focus is on taking agricultural waste like flax straw, that would normally be burned in the fields, and processing it into low-carbon pellets that can be used in modern biomass boilers to generate heat."
Based in the Faculty of Technology and Skilled Trades, SLICE has collaborated with about 60 industry and community partners to address complex sustainability issues.
"With SLICE, we're able to provide our partners with a single entry point for the expertise, tools and technology they need to solve complex, sustainability issues," said Smith.
SLICE researchers are also working with community advisors from Big River First Nation in Northern Saskatchewan to identify culturally significant sites.
The project utilizes drones equipped with sensors and cameras, in tandem with First Nation oral history and land knowledge, to scan the tree canopies of forested areas identified by Elders as culturally significant. The team anticipates locating heritage sites, artifacts, traditional footpaths and more in advance of any logging or resource extraction activities.
About 30%t of forestry workers in Northern Saskatchewan are First Nations or Métis people, and many of the companies are Indigenous-owned.
"Identifying these boreal forest sites in advance will help to better protect them through planning processes," said Smith. "Sustainability is a growing priority for the resource sector, and they're looking for partners like SLICE for assistance in addressing their own environmental and social governance goals. It also fits within our vision of advancing sustainability in Saskatchewan and beyond through collaborative and applied research that benefits our economy, environment, society and future generations."
UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH
Making farms more resilient
Extreme weather, erratic rainfall and prolonged droughts have become the new reality for farmers across Canada. Analysts predict Canada's agricultural sector could lose about $4 billion over the next 28 years as a result of climate change.
"The challenge is the resilience of crops and animals against what is increasingly not only unpredictable weather, but extreme weather," said Dr. Rene Van Acker, Interim Vice-President Research at the University of Guelph (U of G). "The green revolution and its focus on monoculture have also made farming systems less resilient. Nature achieves resiliency through diversity and being dynamic and our farming systems were going in the opposite direction."
Genetic research at U of G is already helping dairy producers lower their carbon footprint while supporting their bottom line.
Dr. Rene Van Acker
Interim Vice-President Research, University of Guelph
The university is working on several main fronts to reverse this trend. One is genetics, "so breeding for more resilience plants and animals," said Van Acker. "This is increasingly becoming one of the frontiers for big data and artificial intelligence to understand the ability of new genetic traits to better withstand drought, heat or frost, while also increasing yields."
Genetic research at U of G is already helping dairy producers lower their carbon footprint while supporting their bottom line.
U of G researchers collaborate with farmers, farm organizations, crop input providers, seed producers and technology companies to strengthen Ontario's $47-billion agri-food sector. This includes simple solutions like crop rotation, as well as adding other species such as red clover to minimize erosion, replenish nutrients in the soil and increase yields.
The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) has been a critical partner in these efforts. In March, the province invested $353 million in the Ontario Agri-Food Innovation Alliance, a longstanding collaboration between U of G, OMAFRA and the Agricultural Research Institute of Ontario.
The university also manages 14 research centres on behalf of OMAFRA. Real-world field tests at the centres promote agri-food discoveries, validate laboratory findings, stimulate further research and provide valuable information for Ontario's agri-food sector.
"When we want to field trial a technology at scale, we have the means to do it," said Van Acker. "Our laboratories are this vast network of research stations that allow us to conduct field trials in every heat zone and every soil type in the province."
OCEAN FRONTIER INSTITUTE
Tapping the world's largest carbon sink
Fighting climate change will depend first and foremost on our success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It will also depend on our ability to harness the ocean's potential to pull even more CO2 out of the air.
"The ocean is by far the biggest carbon sink in the world. It protects us against the worst impacts of a warming planet. But exactly how, and for how long it can do so, are critical scientific questions that need answers urgently," said Dr. Anya Waite, Chief Executive Officer and Scientific Director of the Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI) led by Dalhousie University.
Launched in 2015, the OFI has emerged as a global leader for innovative ocean research, uniting researchers across Dalhousie and its partner institutions. It also collaborates with public and private sector groups across Canada and in 10 countries, including partners from Germany, U.S., Ireland, Norway and France.
"Together we are creating the foundation for a global alliance on ocean research," said Waite.
With a focus on the North Atlantic and Canadian Arctic, the institute supports solutions-oriented, transnational and interdisciplinary research in three key areas: achieving net zero, protecting biodiversity and sustaining bioresources such as fisheries and aquaculture.
"We are very keen to make research work for society, to make it useful. To do that we have to build partnerships beyond the research community itself, including with industry, policymakers and NGOs," added Waite, who is also Dalhousie's Associate Vice-President (Ocean).
Meeting Canada's ambitious emission targets will require solutions that can be tested and scaled quickly. To help get there, Dalhousie recently launched a $400-million research program, which includes a $154 million federal contribution - the largest ever made in research at the university - to establish a new OFI-led program, Transforming Climate Action: Addressing the Missing Ocean. It brings together 170 researchers, 86 postdoctoral fellows and more than 40 national and international partners to study the ocean's changing ability to absorb and hold carbon.
"Without a better understanding of the ocean's role in mitigating global warming, our efforts to meet global climate targets and avert the worst impacts of climate change are at serious risk," said Waite.
Overcoming the barriers to electrification
The Quebec government and multinational corporations are investing billions to build Quebec's battery production capacity and electrify its transport, heating, and part of its industrial sector by 2050.
A key player in this mission is the Centre for Innovation in Energy Storage and Conversion at McGill University. Established in 2021, the McISCE brings together some 50 researchers and more than 150 graduate students - all exploring solutions related to large-scale energy storage, both for electricity grids and large industrial processes.
"Now that the electrification of transport is well under way, a huge amount of development work needs to be done in order to make batteries more efficient," said Sylvain Coulombe, physical engineer and Director of McISCE.
Roughly a third of the researchers at McISCE are investigating new materials to make anodes and cathodes and to develop solid electrolytes, which would have the advantage of not being flammable.
McGill researchers are also exploring different ways to store and convert energy. Quebec's abundance of renewable energy makes it possible to produce either hydrogen or green ammonia, which, when they react or are "broken," release large quantities of energy.
Other research looks at metallic fuels such as iron or aluminum powder. When they react with air or water, these powdered metals can create energy immediately, without producing carbon emissions.
"This is the principle behind the rocket engines of space shuttles, which use aluminum powder as fuel," explained Benoit Boulet, Associate Vice-Principal (Innovation and Partnerships) at McGill.
Metallic fuels could decarbonize energy-intensive industrial processes, such as those used to produce steel or concrete. But their first application, added Boulet, may be in maritime transport. "Our researchers have already patented the burner."
In addition to engineers, physicists, and chemists, McISCE also brings together architects, political scientists, economists and communications specialists to consider non-technical issues - such as regulations, building codes and affordability - that could hinder the adoption and acceptance of these technologies.
"Energy efficient houses and electric cars won't achieve anything if they are unaffordable to half the population," said Coulombe.
Debbie Lawes, Debbie@dovercourteditorial.ca, is an Ottawa-based writer specializing in science, technology and innovation.