The promise of technologies that do not yet exist
The Liberal Government is required by March 31, 2022, to publicly release details of its promised plan to reduce the annual level of Canada’s GHG emissions 40% to 45% by 2030, below the 2005 level. Our national emissions were 730 Mt in 2019. A 45% reduction, down to about 401 Mt, would require very deep and rapid cuts within the next nine years. Over the previous fourteen years, between 2005 and 2019, our emissions declined by 1% in total.
We anticipate the government’s new plan is going to rely heavily on Carbon Capture, Storage, and Utilization (CCUS) technology as one means to achieve emissions reductions from some of Canada’s most carbon-intensive industries, most significantly the oil sands industry.
Beyond the 2030 target, the government has also promised to achieve “Net-zero emissions” by 2050. The “net-zero” means that in 2050 the Canadian economy will still be emitting substantial emissions, but those so-called “remaining emissions” will be “balanced” by an equivalent volume of “emissions removals”. The promise is that CCUS technology (and other future technologies that do not yet exist) will enable our emissions-intensive oil and gas sector to continue to expand production for another 30 years, while we use technology to “remove” and sequester the massive volumes of CO2 that are presently released into the atmosphere during the oil sands extraction process.
Three of the world’s leading climate scientists warned in April 2021 that the concept of “net-zero emissions”, if it is used to justify the continued high-levels of oil, coal, and natural gas use, is “a dangerous trap” (Climate scientists: concept of net-zero is a dangerous trap, James Dyke, Robert Watson, and Wolfgang Knorr, April 22, 2021). Their article is an indication of the growing alarm among climate scientists that the term “net-zero” is becoming a mask for plans to continue expanding oil and natural gas production for another 20 or 30 years.
Between May 17 and June 22, 2021, draft legislation for the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act (Bill C-12) was discussed by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. About 75 written submissions were filed by a range of groups and individuals from across Canada.
Canadian climate scientist Kirsten Zickfeld filed a written submission that clearly addressed the risks posed by building a climate plan that relies heavily on future “emissions removals”. Kirsten Zickfeld was a lead author on the IPCC 2018 report. In a footnote (note 6) to her submission, Zickfeld cites a helpful article, Beyond “Net-Zero”: A Case for Separate Targets for Emissions Reduction and Negative Emissions, Duncan P. McLaren, et al., Front. Clim., 21 August 2019.
The McLaren article provides a comprehensive look at the risks of betting our children’s future on the contingencies of future emissions removal technologies and explains why the prescribed target for actual reductions of emissions should be separate from a target that specifies the volume of “emissions removals” (i.e., using carbon removal technologies) that may be relied on to meet the over-all “net-zero” goal.
A comprehensive joint submission was also filed on May 28, 2021, by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, the Baker Lake Cree Nation, and the Mikisew Cree First Nation. Their submission was entirely focused on this same issue, namely how large a share of the so-called “net-zero” emissions goal by 2050 should be designed to be achieved by actual reductions of emissions, and to what extent we can safely rely on promised future “emissions removals” from the atmosphere to meet that goal. Their proposal was that Bill C-12 be amended to stipulate that 90% of Canada’s mitigation by 2050 must be achieved by the actual reduction of CO2 emissions (permitting up to 10% of the total needed reductions to be met by CDR removals or by “offsets” and other schemes).
The Parliamentary Committee unfortunately rejected proposed amendments to Bill C-12 that would have required the government to develop and publish targets specifying what Canada’s projected “remaining emissions” are expected to be by 2050 and what the annual level of “emissions removals” is supposed to be by 2050. One proposed amendment of that kind was made by Green Party MP Elizabeth May, supported by the Bloc Quebecois MP who was a member of the Committee. The NDP Member of Parliament on the Committee did not support the amendment. The Committee refused to consider the issue – and did not even discuss whether the reliance of Bill C-12 on large-scale future emissions removals was a safe policy.
The risks of undue reliance on “engineered carbon removals” is also discussed in a recent article by Marc Lee, Dangerous Distractions: Canada’s carbon emissions and the pathway to net-zero (C.C.P.A. June 1021).
Canada’s “Net-Zero by 2030” plan consists of a bare promise that by 2050 “continuing emissions” (which are not quantified) will be “balanced” by “emissions removals”. The promised future removals are contingent on technologies that either do not exist (direct air removal) or on CCUS which has never been deployed at scale.
If we fail over the coming few years to impose effective emissions reduction policies and if the anticipated annual level of Canada’s “remaining emissions” by 2050 proves to be very large, future governments will be able to simply promise, as the government is promising now, that envisioned future technologies (which do not yet exist or are unproven at scale) will be able to achieve ever larger amounts of “emissions removals” sometime in the distant future.
As it presently exists, the Liberal Government’s “Net-zero emissions by 2050” goal is a sham. It is a straw dog. It has no air reality. It does not provide even an approximation of the magnitude of the “emissions removals” that under this supposed “plan” our children will be bound to achieve by 2050.