In the lead-up to the Canadian federal election in October, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promised legally binding targets for Canada to be at net zero emissions by 2050. Specifically, they promised:
- “We will set legally-binding, five-year milestones, based on the advice of the experts and consultations with Canadians, to reach net-zero emissions by 2050”
- “We will exceed Canada’s 2030 emissions goal”
Ignoring for now how we’re not on track for the 2030 target, let’s consider what “net zero” means. Essentially, the idea is that through a combination of emission reductions, carbon offsets, and negative emissions through CO2 removal (through air capture or bio-energy with carbon capture) Canada will no longer produce a net positive contribution to the accumulation of greenhouse gases including CO2 into the atmosphere.
The most credible way to reach net zero is to actually end fossil fuel production, import, and use. That we could call “true zero” and it would be a better kind of target for ambitious organizations. It would be focusing because of the long-lived character of infrastructure. If the University of Toronto, for instance, was to be true zero by 2050 then it would need to stop putting natural gas boilers into new buildings wherever they would be expected to run past that date. Similarly, they would need to stop buying gasoline-powered vehicles and everything else that depends on fossil fuels for energy, and do so early enough for everything they operate to be replaced with a climate-safe alternative before the deadline. This is a much more radical and demanding idea. When I promoted a “true zero” promise as a plank in the new “Beyond Divestment” campaign at U of T, which was planning to offer the administration the same easy escape of net zero by hoping to fund reductions elsewhere and hoping for carbon removal at scale, the idea was rejected by the campaign organizers as too demanding and incompatible with pledges being made elsewhere.
The reason to promise “net zero” instead — as a country or a university — is in the optimistic case a sincere belief that offsets and negative emissions can be meaningful and significant. In what’s perhaps a more plausible case, it’s a way of avoiding the politically intolerable suggestion that we’re actually going to stop using fossil fuels to combat climate change. That avoids antagonizing the industry and its supporters, while placating those who may not be paying much attention with the belief that this is equivalent to true decarbonization. It is telling that fossil fuel corporations also like net zero targets, since they allow the current leadership to continue with expanding production and emissions while leaving the problem for someone else to fix later. That position is delusional because every year of delay in starting with true decarbonization makes it far harder to stabilize at any temperature limit while raising the cost of doing so by requiring the projects we built to be shut down before the end of their economic lifespans and increasing how quickly emissions must be cut when we finally get serious.
In the case of the Canadian promise, it seems like another manifestation of Trudeau’s determination to promise action to protect the climate in the long term as a way to legitimize and justify actions that worsen the problem while they actually hold power. While in office, you approve major new fossil fuel infrastructure projects, while saying with no authority to do so that future governments will counteract those choices. This proposition doesn’t even make sense in the short term because of that long-lived infrastructure problem. No oil pipeline, LNG facility, or bitumen sands mine that is built in 2020 is intended to be shut down before 2050. And so, today’s pro-fossil expansion policies directly and immediately contradict the net zero target. It’s another sense in which we have been drawn toward shadow solutions by our unwillingness to take the actions really required to stabilize the climate. It’s a sign of how little Canadians understand the problem, and how much they choose to believe what they prefer over what is supported by evidence, that many have accepted such promises as evidence of commitment and seriousness on the issue.