Avoiding Dangerous Distractions such as Net-zero emissions goals

Dangerous Distractions: Canada’s carbon emissions and the pathway to net zero  is a newly published report by Marc Lee, of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – B.C.  The report argues that “Net zero has the potential to be a dangerous distraction that reduces the political pressure to achieve actual emission reductions in favour of wishful thinking about future technologies and “nature-based solutions…. This permits business-as-usual to continue for longer than it should, perpetuating the era of fossil fuels including other adverse health and environmental impacts.”  Instead, the Canadian government should invest in  proven climate change solutions such as renewal energy.

A working definition of “net zero” might be similar to that offered by the  Institute for Climate Choices: “Achieving net zero emissions requires shifting to technologies and energy systems that do not produce greenhouse gas emissions, while removing any remaining emissions from the atmosphere and storing them permanently.”  “Net zero” targets have been increasingly adopted by governments – including Canada – and by businesses – whose use has been challenged by many – notably by Friends of the Earth International in Chasing Carbon Unicorns: The Deception of Carbon Markets and Net Zero (Feb. 2021).

 Dangerous Distractions  concerns the Canadian government policy approach to a net zero goal, particularly focusing on  carbon removal technologies such as carbon capture and storage, forestry management, and the use of carbon offsets, especially the international trade in carbon offsets (such as proposed by the international Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets , founded by Mark Carney).  Lee concludes: “It’s impossible to know what carbon removal technologies of the future could achieve. For now, they are a dangerous distraction that diverts resources away from bona fide solutions. Scaling these ideas is very expensive and impractical, while perpetuating the era of fossil fuels prolongs other costly adverse impacts on human health, such as those due to air pollution.”

What follows are several recommendations, the first of which  is: “ Plan to reduce domestic emissions to “real zero” and to phase out the extraction and production of fossil fuels for export.”  He continues, “Don’t subsidize carbon capture and storage (CCS) with public funds. Require CCS for any proposed fossil fuel projects and phase in requirements for CCS in current projects”, and “Fund conservation of intact forests and nature-based solutions recognizing their important carbon, biodiversity and other co-benefits but treat this as a global public service. They should not be counted towards the 2050 target”; “Reject international carbon markets and do not plan on meeting domestic GHG targets by buying credits from outside Canada.”

The government of Canada legislated its net-zero emissions goal in Bill C-12, The  Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, introduced in November 2020 and currently before Committee.  In February 2021, Canada’s federal Minister of the Environment and Climate Change established a permanent  Net-Zero Advisory Body, consisting of fourteen experts, and also in February, the Institute for Climate Choices published a lengthly report, Canada’s Net Zero Future: Finding our way in the global transition. That report contrasts to  Dangerous Distractions by advocating for two pathways forward: “safe bets” in the short term, and in the long term, “wild cards” which include negative emission technologies that are not yet commercially available.

Canada’s net zero future should include policies to support technology “wild cards”: report

Canada’s Net Zero Future: Finding our way in the global transition is a policy document released on February 8  by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, the national research network created by Environment and Climate Change Canada in 2020. The report provides a simple definition of net zero: “shifting toward technologies and energy systems that do not produce emissions, and offsetting any remaining emissions by removing GHGs from the atmosphere and storing them permanently.” Based on technical analysis by Navius Research which examined more than 60 modelling scenarios, the report is announced as “the first in-depth scenario report to explore how Canada can reach net zero emissions by 2050”. It concludes that the goal is doable, using two pathways: “safe bets” and “wild cards”.

Most impact will be made by “Safe bets—commercially available, cost-effective, existing technologies like electric vehicles, heat pumps, and smart grids” which they estimate can generate at least two-thirds of the emission reductions required. In the longer-term, to reach the 2050 target, the authors rely on results from unproven “wild cards”— “high-risk, high reward technologies like advanced biofuels, zero-emissions hydrogen, and some types of engineered negative emission technologies that are not yet commercially available”.   The conclusion: “To scale up safe bets, governments should continue to steadily increase the stringency of policies such as carbon pricing and flexible regulations. To advance wild cards, governments should spread their bets—supporting a portfolio of emerging technologies, without delaying progress on existing smart bet solutions over the next crucial decade.”

Of the four formal Recommendations, #4 is “Governments should work to ensure that the transition to net zero is fair and inclusive”.  ….. “It is vital that governments understand the full range of implications the transition will have on all of Canada’s regions, sectors, workers, communities, and income groups. This is necessary to ensure that policies successfully address adverse impacts and work to lift up groups who have historically been left behind, instead of exacerbating those inequalities. This will require direct engagement with all of those groups.”

The lead author of the report is Jason Dion, Mitigation Research Director at the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, but the report is a “consensus document” involving many advisors who compose its Mitigation Expert Panel Working Group, as well as expert external reviewers.  Two accompanying blogs condense the message in “What puts the “net” in net zero?” (regarding three means of negative emissions) and “Net zero is compatible with economic growth if we do it right” (emphasizing the importance of likelihood of GDP growth through the recommended policies.) 

Related Recent reports:

The Carbontech Innovation System in Canada released in December 2020 by the Pembina Institute, along with CMC Research Institutes and the Alberta Clean Technology Industry Alliance. It reviews and evaluates Canada’s position in the global carbon capture and utilization marketplace.

Accelerating Decarbonization of the United States Energy System published by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in February 2021. Written by a committee of experts, this is a policy blueprint for the U.S. to decarbonize its transportation, electricity, buildings, and industrial sectors, in order to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. See a summary here.

Can Technology solve Climate Change? two brief essays debating the pro and con arguments, by Adam Dorr and Richard Heinberg.