Net-Zero Advisory Board debuts with a call for urgent action and real GHG reductions

Canada’s new Net-Zero Advisory Board has published its first report on a newly-launched website on July 5. The report,  Net-Zero Pathways: Initial Observations, outlines the ten values and principles that will guide the Board in its consideration of  “transition pathways”, and in turn, determine the advice it will provide to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change.

This Initial Observations report is written in careful and diplomatic language, but provides an insight into the thinking and approach that this advisory body will take. The five foundational values include: “Put people first”  (which calls for a just transition and  states: “ A just transition will lead to more equitable outcomes on gender, racial justice and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”).   Value #4  is “ Collaborate every step of the way”  (“Pathways must be multidisciplinary, taking into account the contributions of workers, economists, investors, engineers, entrepreneurs, social scientists, and Indigenous knowledge holders, among others. They must be grounded in the reality facing everyday, hardworking Canadians.”) and Value #5, recognizing political realities, is:  “Recognize and respect regional differences and circumstances”…. (“In many parts of the country, jobs, communities, and the economy are closely connected to GHG-intensive activities. Canada’s net-zero transition will take place in a context with tensions and tradeoffs, as well as benefits.”).

The five “design principles” begin with “Act early, and urgently”, and emphasize the need to “be bold and proactive” – pointing to the example of the recent  IEA Net-Zero by 2050 report, and stating: “the public and private sectors need to be prepared to take appropriate risks and back potential “game changers” now—both in terms of new technologies and infrastructure.”  At the same time, the report states that we should begin with known technologies – such as electrification and energy efficiency, and warns “Don’t get caught in the “net”” – stating that we must achieve actual emissions reductions, and warning “the “net” in “netzero” cannot become an excuse to allow continued emitting, growth of emissions, or slow action.”  Finally, “Beware of dead-ends” states, “While there may be interim actions that serve as bridges on the path to net-zero, some projects or activities may obscure or misdirect us from the ultimate goal or lead to inaction.”

The analysis was the result of fourteen briefing sessions with Canadian and international net-zero experts, who were identified by a scan of the net-zero literature.  Two appendices at the end of the report identify the experts and the reading list – which includes a cross-section of Canadian reports as well as international ones. The Net-Zero Advisory Board, consisting of fourteen members, was appointed by Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change on February 25, 2021, to serve as an ongoing, permanent body. One of the members is Hassan Yussuff, formerly President of the Canadian Labour Congress and now a Senator. The full terms of reference for the Board are here , and include an annual report to the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change.

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.

Canadian oil companies rely on carbon capture technology in their new net zero alliance

On June 9, five Canadian oil companies –  Canadian Natural Resources, Cenovus Energy, Imperial, MEG Energy and Suncor Energy – announced their alliance in the Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero initiative, whose goal is to achieve net zero GHG emissions from their operations in Alberta’s oil sands by 2050 (but not including the emissions created from the oil consumption after it is extracted).  Importantly, the companies still forecast a global demand for oil, so they do not discuss reducing production, but rather they will rely on a Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS) trunkline running from the Fort McMurray and Cold Lake regions to a carbon sequestration hub near Cold Lake Alberta. Other means to reduce GHG’s will include existing technologies at oil sands operations, including “CCUS technology, clean hydrogen, process improvements, energy efficiency, fuel switching and electrification”, as well as  “potential emerging emissions-reducing technologies including direct air capture, next-generation recovery technologies and small modular nuclear reactors.”   

The companies are aided in developing these new technologies by the federal government, which announced a $750-million Emissions Reduction Fund in October 2020 , providing loans to promote investment in greener extractive technologies. It is hardly surprising then that the new alliance calls for “ Collaboration between industry and government” , and in case that wasn’t clear enough, the press release continues: “In addition to collaborating and investing together with industry, it is essential for governments to develop enabling policies, fiscal programs and regulations to provide certainty for this type of long-term, large-scale investment. This includes dependable access to carbon sequestration rights, emissions reduction credits and ongoing investment tax credits. We look forward to continued collaboration with both the federal and Alberta governments to create the regulatory and policy certainty and fiscal framework needed to ensure the economic viability of this initiative.”  

Professors Kathryn Harrison,  Martin Olszynski, and Patrick McCurdy offer guidance on how to read the Alliance goals, in “Why you should take oilsands giants’ net-zero pledge with a barrel of skepticism” in The National Observer (June 10). “Alberta is gambling its future on carbon capture” (The National Observer,  June 11) compiles reaction (mostly skeptical) from Environmental Defence and the Pembina Institute. The Energy Mix reacted with: “Fossils’ ‘Net-Zero’ Alliance has no Phaseout Plan, Relies on Shaky Carbon Capture Technology”, which surveys a broader range of reaction and quotes Pembina Institute’s Alberta regional director, Chris Severson-Baker, at length.  

Corporate net zero goals: solution or deception?

Climate change superstar Mark Carney set off a media flurry in a video interview with Bloomberg Live on February 10, in which he claimed that Brookfield Asset Management is a “net zero” company because its renewables investments offset emissions from its other holdings. Carney reflects a new trend of corporate aspirational statements, for example: Jeff Bezos’ corporate network The Climate Pledge claimed in February that 53 companies across 18 industries have committed to working toward net-zero carbon in their worldwide businesses, most by 2050.  Recent  high profile examples include Royal Dutch Shell , Canada’s TD Bank  and Bank of Montreal, and  FedEx , which on March 5 announced its goal to be carbon-neutral by 2040 as well as an initial investment of $2 billion to start electrifying its delivery fleet and $100 million to fund a new research centre for carbon capture at  Yale University.

Will these corporate goals help to reach the Paris Agreement target?  Many recent articles are skeptical,  labelling them “sham”, “greenwash”, and “deception” which seeks to protect the status quo.  Some examples:

The climate crisis can’t be solved by carbon accounting tricks” (The Guardian, March 3) which offers a concise explanation of why “Disaster looms if big finance is allowed to game the carbon offsetting markets to achieve ‘net zero’ emissions.”

Global oil companies have committed to ‘net zero’ emissions. It’s a sham” by Tzeporah Berman and Nathan Taft (The Guardian, March 3) – which instead advocates for an international Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Call the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Net-Zero Bluff” by Kate Aronoff  in New Republic. She writes: “This isn’t the old denialism oil companies funded decades ago. … Instead of casting doubt on whether the climate is changing, this new messaging strategy casts doubt on the obvious answer to what should be done about it: i.e., rapidly scaling down production….. For now, it’s one part creative accounting and many parts a P.R. strategy of waving around shiny objects like biofuels, hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage.”

Can the market save the planet?  FedEx is the latest brand-name firm to say it’s trying” in the Washington Post , which quotes Yale Professor Paul Sabin, warning that “carbon capture research also should not become an excuse for doubling down on fossil fuel consumption, or delaying urgently needed policies to move away from fossil fuel consumption, including the electrification of transportation.”

Chasing Carbon Unicorns: The Deception of Carbon Markets and Net Zero  – a hard-hitting report by Friends of the Earth International which argues that net zero pledges are “a new addition to the strategy basket of these actors who are fighting hard to maintain the status quo.”   The report names these actors, led by the  financial community’s new Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets (TSVCM) – established by Mark Carney and the led by the CEO of the Standard Chartered Bank, with a goal to develop standards for “credible offsets” . FOE International also names a
group of Oxford academics which is supporting the TSVCM work by developing the Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting , and  conservation agencies which have endorsed the work: Conservation International (CI), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Chasing Carbon Unicorns concludes:

“Net zero” is a smokescreen, a conveniently invented concept that is both dangerous and problematic because of how effectively it hides inaction. We have to unpack “net zero” strategies and pledges to see which are real and which are fake. Fake zero strategies rely on offsets, rather than real emission reductions. Real zero strategies require emissions to really go to zero, or as close to zero as possible.”

Federal Advisory Committee on Net Zero policies appointed to augment existing research and recommendations

In late February, the federal government appointed a Net Zero Advisory Committee   with fifteen expert members, including Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuf and  Climate Action Network-Canada (CAN-Rac) Executive Director Catherine Abreu, as well as  Linda Coady,  Executive Director of the Pembina Institute,  climate scientist Simon Donner from University of British Columbia,  Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Kluane Adamek, and others from government and  industry.  As explained in  “Canada’s new Net Zero Advisory Body and Bill C-12” (March 4) by the Climate Action Network Canada, this Advisory Committee was a platform promise made by the Liberals during the 2019 election, and is intended to provide ongoing expert advice until 2050 to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change. Its mandate, here, is to provide advice on the next framework for Canada’s climate change policies, as currently before the House of Commons in Bill C-12,  the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act.

An article in The Energy Mix emphasizes the independent nature of the advisory body, and the fact that there are no current oil and gas industry representatives included.   However, in “Accountability Bill Lacks ‘Clear Path’ To Net-Zero Targets, Climate Scientist Warns Ottawa”, Catherine Abreu is quoted as saying that despite the Advisory Committee, Canada still lacks clear accountability in climate policy, and that Bill C-12 is  “not the robust piece of legislation we need to make sure Canada never misses another climate target. To make sure it’s set up to drive up ambition, especially in the near term, we need the 2025 goal and a stronger 2030 goal enshrined in law.”

Other policy voices on the Net Zero ambition are found in Canada’s Net Zero Future: Finding our way in the global transition, released on February 8  by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices , and described by the Institute as “the first in-depth scenario report to explore how Canada can reach net zero emissions by 2050”. It  advocates for two pathways: “safe bets” in the short term, and in the long term, “wild cards” which include negative emission technologies that are not yet commercially available.

On March 11,  the Pembina Institute released  How to Get Net-Zero Right,  which recommends top priority for “early, deep, sustained, and technologically feasible direct emissions reductions in every sector. …..Canada’s pathways must define an appropriate role for carbon removal and offsets. Achieving net-zero will require the use of carbon removal to address hard-to-decarbonize sectors or essential end uses that cannot yet be decarbonized. Carbon removal and offsets, however, cannot be approached as an alternative to mitigation, but rather in addition.”

How to Get Net-Zero Right  is the first of a promised series of reports on the issue by Pembina, and will consider social justice and equity concerns.