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    Part 2: How does production of renewables contribute to climate change?


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    In part two of our look at energy production and climate change, Energy IQ breaks down the greenhouse gas emissions associated with renewable energy sources and looks at their part in Canada’s energy policy.

    The term “climate change” is used to describe shifts in global temperature and long-term weather patterns caused by excessive greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases, or GHGs, include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases, and are released into the atmosphere through both natural processes and human activities...

    The term “climate change” is used to describe shifts in global temperature and long-term weather patterns caused by excessive greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases, or GHGs, include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases, and are released into the atmosphere through both natural processes and human activities.


    Carbon dioxide is the primary GHG emitted by human activities. Canada is one of the highest GHG emitters in the world. Of the 704 million tonnes of GHGs emitted in Canada in 2016, the oil and gas sector and transportation sectors accounted for almost 50% of total emissions.


    Hydro emits 35 times less greenhouse gases than natural gas electricity-generating systems, and 70 times less than coal. However, when reservoirs are created for hydro projects, trees and plants become submerged in water, and the decomposition that occurs from this process releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Methane is also released as plant matter decomposes, and emissions of carbon dioxide and methane usually peak between two and four years after a reservoir is filled. In addition to flooding land to create reservoirs, constructing a hydroelectric dam also creates greenhouse gas emissions. 


    Most of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with solar power come from transporting solar panels (fossil fuel), and the manufacturing process. Photovoltaic solar panels are made from crystalline silicon, which is energy and carbon intensive to mine and refine. Crystalline silicon (in the form of sand or quartz) must first be mined from the Earth’s surface, then refined at high temperatures and subjected to intense chemical processing to be suitable before it is used in a photovoltaic cell. There is much debate over the actual size of a solar panel’s carbon footprint, but generally, after a few years, solar panels payback their carbon debt. However, with production of solar panels moving to cheaper markets in Asia, there are concerns about the regulations around emissions and chemical byproducts being more lax than in Europe or North America. 


    Wind turbines having a 20 to 30 year lifespan, during which they are able to payback the carbon emissions that occur before they are operational. Most of the associated emissions occur during construction, with offshore wind farms having higher lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions than on-shore farms since more concrete is used for underwater supports.

    Wind energy emits less carbon dioxide equivalent than any other major renewable energy source. Most estimates of wind turbine emissions during their lifecycle are between 0.02 and 0.04 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour. 


    Biomass power generating plants release nitrogen oxides, sulpur dioxide and carbon dioxide. However, the carbon dioxide it releases may not result in a net increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide, especially if the biomass resources originate from a sustainable source. If sustainably managed, biomass is considered to be a carbon neutral, renewable energy source.

    It is difficult to measure the exact carbon footprint of biomass and bioenergy, as the resource can come from dedicated land, such as crops grown specifically for biomass, or undedicated land, such as forest or landfill sites. In general, bioenergy collected and burned from dedicated land is less sustainable than bioenergy from wastes, such as landfill gas or animal waste.


    To learn more about climate change and its causes and effects, visit:


    Show Me More [+] Show Me Less [–]

    Biomass meets almost five percent of Canada’s primary energy demand and is the second largest source of renewable energy after hydroelectricity.

    Almost all of Nunavut’s electricity is generated from diesel fuel imported during the summer and then stored for year-round use.

    Solar photovoltaic (PV) [+]

    A semiconductor device that converts solar energy to electricity.

    Climate change [+]

    A term used to describe the change in the earth’s climate caused by excessive greenhouse gas emissions. 

    Dam [+]

    A barrier to obstruct/control the flow of water.

    Renewable energy [+]

    Energy sources that occur naturally and that can be replenished continually. Ocean, moving water, wind and solar are sources of renewable energy.

    Wind power [+]

    Use of the energy in winds to produce power; a renewable energy source.

    Biomass accounts for 10 percent of the world’s energy demand.

    Every province and territory, except P.E.I. and Nunavut, produces hydroelectricity.

    Take the Quiz

    How does production of energy sources contribute to climate change?


    In Canada, wind energy supplies three percent of total electricity demand.

    Canada has 450 hydro stations with a total installed capacity of about 70,000 megawatts, with the potential to more than double that.

    Canada had 35 biomass-fuelled power plants in 2011 in several provinces, including Alberta, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Quebec.

    Solar farm [+]

    An installation of interconnected solar panels set up to generate electricity.

    Wind farms [+]

    A group of wind turbines, often owned and maintained by one company; also known as a wind power plant.

    Biomass [+]

    Organic material, such as trees, agricultural waste and municipal waste, that can be burned or converted into biofuel to produce energy.

    Renewable resources [+]

    A natural resource that can be replenished over time.

    Reservoir [+]

    A large natural or artificial lake used as a source of water supply for hydroelectricity production.

    A naturally occurring subsurface pool of hydrocarbons that is confined by impermeable rock or water barriers.


    Carbon dioxide (CO2) [+]

    A non-toxic gas produced from decaying materials, plant and animal respiration and the combustion of organic matter (including fossil fuels), it is the most common greenhouse gas emitted into our atmosphere.

    Greenhouse gas (GHG) [+]

    Created through human activities and natural processes, these gases are trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and water vapour are a few examples of common greenhouse gasses.

    Solar energy [+]

    Radiant light and heat from the Sun that can be harnessed and converted into an energy source for human use.

    Solar panel (solar cell, photovoltaic cell) [+]

    A panel exposed to radiation from the sun in the form of light or heat to create electricity.

    Quebec is Canada’s largest hydro producer and possesses more than half of the country’s hydroelectricity capacity.

    Canada is the world’s second largest producer of hydroelectricity.

    In the last five years, Canada’s wind energy supplied enough electricity to power up to 2.6 million households.


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    Attention all teachers

    The new "Classroom in a Box" is now available! Packed with lesson plans, factbooks, videos, quizzes, maps and more, this one-stop digital download is an essential resource for any educator looking to improve their students’ energy literacy. Visit Canadian Geographic Education’s Online Classroom to download the ready-to-use Classroom in a Box.