An Empty Promise
It is now more than a full year since the Liberal Government on November 19, 2020, announced its new “net-zero” goal for 2050. Greenhouse gas emissions in all seven sectors of the Canadian economy in 2019 totalled 730 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2eq. Canada’s commitment under the 2015 Paris Agreement is to reduce our emissions 40% to 45% by 2030, below the 2005 level. The target for 2030 is therefore 401 Mt.
What exactly is the government promising we will do by 2050?
Canada’s definition of what “Net-Zero emission by 2050” means
The Canada’s Energy Future 2020 document published November 24, 2020, tells us that “reaching net-zero emissions does not necessarily require eliminating all emissions” by 2050. It promises that by 2050, the ongoing level of Canada’s annual emissions (referred to as our “remaining emissions”) will be offset (“balanced”) by future technologies that it claims will have the capability to remove massive amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere (“emissions removals”).
A key promise underlying Canada’s new plan is that, in future, “negative emissions technologies” will be available that will allow us to effectively remove CO2 from the atmosphere and do that on a sufficiently large scale to ensure that by 2050 all further emissions released by Canada into the atmosphere are “balanced” by “emissions removals”. The goal is to ensure that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere does not exceed the critical threshold that will lead to average global surface temperature far above 1.5°C. But the future availability of those technologies is a conjecture. A graph published in the CER 2020 report explains the basic concept, under the title “Illustrative Example, the GHG Emissions Remaining after Mitigation and Emissions Removal”. We reproduce it below:
In the report, adjacent to the above diagram, a short paragraph tells us only this:
Reaching net-zero emissions does not necessarily require eliminating all emissions everywhere. Instead, residual emissions can be balanced by enhanced biological sinks and negative emissions technologies.— Canada’s Energy Future 2021 report, page 67 (emphasis added)
The vertical axis on the government’s graph measures the level of Canada’s annual emissions, depicted as starting to decline in 2020. But there is no scale or actual numbers to tell us what the reduced level of Canada’s emissions is supposed to be by 2050 or what the projected amount of “remaining emissions” might be in 2050. Nor does the diagram reveal anything about what the expected level of reduced emissions would have to be by 2035 or by 2040 to stay on this hypothetical downward trajectory. It is just a sketch of a concept.
As can be seen on the far right-hand side of the diagram, by 2050 a substantial but unspecified volume of emissions is still being released into the atmosphere. Hypothetically offsetting that volume of remaining emissions, an equivalent volume of “emissions removals” (represented on the graph by numeral 4) is assumed to be achieved in 2050 to ensure that the overall result for that year will be “net-zero”. Numeral 5 is said to represent zero “net emissions” because it assumes that “removals” by 2050 will balance remaining emissions.
Therefore, the sketch envisions that if we fail to adopt new policies within the next thirty years to achieve the needed deep reductions by 2050 (i.e., mitigation policies that allow us to massively reduce our emissions by ending our dependence on coal, oil, and natural gas) or if we choose not to do so, we can halt any further increases in the amount of CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere by deploying new technologies that will have the capacity to actually remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
The concept promises that large-scale installations of CDR (Carbon Dioxide Removal) technologies including CCUS and other future technologies which do not yet exist or now exist only in very small-scale experimental forms will allow us to declare, by 2050, that we have ceased “net additions” to the cumulative amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Meeting that promise, of course, is left to the world’s children and they will bear the burden of that.
In this scheme, the size of the “remaining emissions” by 2050 is a crucial “unknown” that will make the difference between a possibly viable outcome (if the remaining emissions are very small) and one that masks a pathway to catastrophic failure (if the remaining emissions are very large and beyond our capacity to remove). The actual outcome will depend on the magnitude of the “remaining emissions” by 2050 and whether the promised “removal” technologies by then are viable.
If under this plan we allow relatively high levels of industrial emissions (including high levels of emissions from ongoing oil sands operations and other oil and gas sector activities) to continue to 2030 and beyond, then by 2050 the annual level of emissions in Canada could still be as high as 200 Mt, or even 400 Mt (the level was 730 Mt in 2019).
That would mean our children (and their children) 30 years from now are going to be responsible for figuring out by 2050 how to remove hundreds of millions of tonnes CO2 from the atmosphere by using non-existent CDR technology, and to do that every year until Canada manages to reduce its “remaining emissions” down to zero.
The CER 2020 report reveals nothing at all about what the level of “remaining emission” is expected to be 30 years from now. Until the government tells us what the proposed target for “remaining emissions” is going to be for 2050, there is no goal and there is no plan.
New law delays the public disclosure of key climate targets for many years
On June 30, 2021, Parliament passed the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act (Bill C-12). Section 7 of the new law sets the deadlines for when the government must reveal the national emissions reduction target for each “milestone year”:
7 (4) The Minister must set the national greenhouse gas target
for the 2035 milestone year, no later than December 1, 2024;
for the 2040 milestone year, no later than December 1, 2029;
for the 2045 milestone year, no later than December 1, 2034
The new law does not legally require the government to establish or disclose to Canadians any long-term target for the reduction of Canada’s emissions until December 1, 2034 – thirteen years from now. The government is free to delay telling us anything about the 2040 target until December 1, 2029.
The law enables the government to conceal from the public for many more years the long-term emissions implications of Canada’s current plans to continue expanding oil and gas production to 2045.
The announcement of a “net-zero emissions by 2050” goal does not provide a new climate plan for Canada. It allows the Government of Canada more time to delay the day of candour – to delay a truthful accounting of the contradiction between Canada’s existing energy policies, which continue to facilitate the ongoing expansion of the oil and gas sector and delay the kind of action required within the next nine years to give us a realistic chance of avoiding a catastrophic outcome. Oil and gas sector emissions are the dominant source of our county’s emissions growth. The higher they go (and the longer we delay reversing this trend) the higher our “remaining emissions” will be in 2050 – and the higher the annual level of “emissions removals” would have to be after 2050 to meet “net-zero”. Under this scheme, the risk and loss and suffering will be shifted to the world’s children, in exchange for our own immediate financial gain.