Phil De Luna on climate change and the path to net zero

Do you know Phil De Luna? If you don’t already, you should. Phil is one of Canada’s leaders on the path to net zero—he’s the Director of the Materials for Clean Fuel Challenge Program at the National Research Council (NRC), where he supports research on hydrogen and other fuels that are critical to enabling a low-carbon future.


Recently I had the pleasure of chatting with Phil about his work and about Canada’s clean energy future. Read or watch excerpts below of the first part of our conversation, focused on climate change. And keep an eye out next week when we’ll share the rest of our conversation on the future of hydrogen in Canada.

DC: What inspired you to focus your career on climate change?


PDL: I've always been driven by trying to solve really big problems. And as I grew up, I realized that climate change was probably the biggest problem that we could ever have.


This is part of being young and being part of the millennial generation—we know that younger generations will continue to bear the brunt of climate change as time goes on.


DC: Why is it so important that Canada focus on making a clean energy transition?


PDL: Today it can feel like we're as polarized as ever—it’s us versus them, left versus right, environmentalist versus oil and gas workers. It feels like people are shouting at each other without addressing the real problem, which is emissions.

The thing that I'm really passionate about is explaining why this transition is so needed, and I do that because I've lived through a similar transition in my own life.

I grew up in Windsor, Ontario, which used to be the automotive capital of Canada, right next to Detroit, which was automotive capital of the world. My dad worked in the automotive sector. He worked at Ford in the assembly plant.


And then in 2008, we had the financial crisis. The automotive sector had faced rising forces over time, that included globalization, and automation and robotics. That sector plummeted, and that industry faded away. And my dad lost his job.


I've seen what that can do to an entire community that is dependent on one industry. And if this sounds familiar, it's because this is happening right now to Western Canada and the oil and gas industry.

So what I think is really important for people to understand is that we need to think about how to transition into a more sustainable place. The people who are contributing to the oil and gas sector have skills that we need for that transition.

For hydrogen, we need pipe fitters, we need technicians, engineers, workers with deep expertise with thermodynamics and fluid mechanics and fluid and mass flow. These are the exact same people that work in the oil and gas industry. They can work in hydrogen and geothermal, and biofoundries, and all sorts of different sustainable technologies.


That's what we should be focusing on: how do we get ahead of this transition so that no families get left behind?


DC: What does the National Research Council do, aside from research into low-carbon technology?


PDL: The NRC is the Government of Canada’s national laboratories. We own and operate labs across the country, and we work on everything from energy to astrophysics, from COVID-19 research to digital technologies, and everything in between.


DC: What can everyday Canadians do to help with the clean energy transition?


PDL: The truth of the matter is that with something as far-reaching and global as climate change, we really need broad systemic change to tackle it. So the things that you can do personally like reduce, reuse, recycle—sure, absolutely. But it's really collective action that will move the needle.


What you can do is be champions for climate change issues within your company. It takes energy to do things, so advocate for how to be more efficient with your operations or advocate to move towards net zero operations.


Talk to your loved ones and people in your sphere of influence about climate change and why it's so important.

Every CEO that I've talked to that has had their minds changed about taking action on climate change has done so by having a conversation with their grandkids at the dining room table, not with some consultant in the boardroom.

Finally, advocate for the policies that will bring action on climate. We've seen what happens when we're not prepared for one crisis, with the pandemic, and we know for a fact that this other crisis of climate change is coming. So we should all be trying to demand that more preparation is done in advance of this crisis.


So these are all the steps that you can take both from a large system-scale perspective and a personal everyday choice perspective.

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Stay tuned next week for the rest of my conversation with Phil, where we talk about hydrogen development in Canada.


--David Campbell is the Director of the Bruce Power Centre for Next Generation Nuclear.