Net zero climate targets

2020-04-16

in Canada, Economics, Politics, The environment

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.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

. May 17, 2020 at 11:05 pm

BP chief says Covid has deepened commitment to net-zero emissions

Pandemic only adds to the challenge that already exists for oil, says Bernard Looney

. May 22, 2020 at 5:29 pm

So what does Harvard’s ‘net-zero’ pledge mean?
By Emily Pontecorvo | News | May 7th 2020

“I think the idea is, at the end of the day, all the companies in the portfolio would be net-zero,” said Georges Dyer, executive director of the Intentional Endowments Network, a nonprofit that helps endowed institutions make their investments more sustainable. While he doesn’t advocate for or against divestment or any other specific strategy, Dyer pointed out that Harvard’s net-zero target has the potential to address the climate crisis across the whole economy, including real estate and natural resources, and not just the fossil fuel sector.

A net-zero portfolio won’t be as simple as only investing in companies with net-zero pledges, since different companies have different definitions of net-zero. Indeed, in his letter to faculty, Bacow admitted that Harvard was not yet sure how it would measure or reduce the endowment’s footprint, explaining the plan would require “developing sophisticated new methods” for both. In a statement shared with Grist, the Harvard Management Company, which manages the endowment, said it would work to “understand and influence” each company’s “exposure to, and planned mitigation of, climate-related risks.” It plans to develop interim emissions targets to ensure success.

Harvard isn’t alone in trying to figure this out. The Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance is a group of institutional investors that was formed at the United Nations Climate Summit last fall. Its members have committed to net-zero investment portfolios by 2050, promising to set interim emissions targets in five-year increments and to issue progress reports along the way. But the group is still looking for answers on how to actually accomplish these goals.

. June 19, 2020 at 7:29 pm

Climate change: Study pours cold water on oil company net zero claims

Claims by oil and gas companies that they are curbing their carbon emissions in line with net zero targets are overstated, according to a new review.

The independent analysis of six large European corporations acknowledges they have taken big steps on CO2 recently.

In April, Shell became the latest to announce ambitious plans to be at net zero for operational emissions by 2050.

But the authors say none of the companies are yet aligned with the 1.5C temperature goal.

Scientists argue that the global temperature must not rise by more than 1.5C by the end of the century if the world is to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

The research has been carried out by the Transition Pathway Initiative (TPI), an investor-led group which investigates how companies are preparing for the move to a low-carbon economy.

Going net zero means removing as many emissions as are produced.

TPI found that the relationship between the oil and gas industry and climate change has evolved rapidly over the last three years.

. June 26, 2020 at 1:57 pm

Look Who’s Talking About Zero Emissions

In an interview, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden insists he doesn’t run an oil company any more.

. July 1, 2020 at 11:57 pm

For decades, people have asked me why the oil companies don’t just become solar companies. They don’t for the same reason that Facebook doesn’t behave decently: an oil company’s core business is digging stuff up and burning it, just as Facebook’s is to keep people glued to their screens. Digging and burning is all that oil companies know how to do—and why the industry has spent the past thirty years building a disinformation machine to stall action on climate change. It’s why—with the evidence of climate destruction growing by the day—the best that any of them can offer are vague pronouncements about getting to “net zero by 2050”—which is another way of saying, “We’re not going to change much of anything anytime soon.” (The American giants, like ExxonMobil, won’t even do that.)

Total, the French oil company, has made the 2050 pledge, but it is projected to increase fossil-fuel production by twelve percent between 2018 and 2030. These are precisely the years when we must cut emissions in half, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to have any chance of meeting the vital targets set by the Paris climate agreement, which aim to hold the planet’s temperature increase as close as possible to one and a half degrees Celsius. The next six months will be crucial as nations prepare coronavirus recovery plans. Because effective climate planning at this moment will require keeping most oil, coal, and gas reserves in the ground, the industry will resist fiercely.

. July 3, 2020 at 1:46 pm
. July 3, 2020 at 3:11 pm

CURWOOD: Why is Harvard’s recent carbon neutrality by 2050 announcement controversy for for many activists? And how do you personally feel about their decision? And of course, I should mention that in full disclosure, it’s kind of personal for both of us as we spent our undergrad years there.

MCKIBBEN: I don’t think that Harvard’s announcement’s controversial for activists, I don’t know anybody who’s anything but disgusted by it. I mean, look, Harvard has long since forfeited the idea that they’re going to be a leader on any of this stuff. And now they’re not even willing to be a follower. Announcing that you’re going to do something in 2050 at this point, Steve, you know, the science of all of this well enough to know that’s not very helpful. The game will be decided long before then we need people stepping up and acting now. And I gotta say Harvard has been a tremendous disappointment, but whatever. The rest of the world is going on around them. The other Ivy’s are, many of them, busily divesting the biggest universities on the planet are divesting like the UC system. And the same day that Harvard made its announcement that it was going to wait till 2050, the only institution with more prestige and status, Oxford, said we’re all in with fossil fuel divestment. So I’ll take that.

. July 11, 2020 at 10:14 pm

More oil firms are also preparing for a low-carbon future. In December Repsol of Spain pledged to reach net-zero emissions from its operations and the sale of its products by 2050. bp, Shell, Eni and Total have since announced their own commitments.

https://www.economist.com/business/2020/05/28/how-big-oil-is-trying-to-win-back-investors

. July 18, 2020 at 7:35 pm

South Korea Tags $61 Billion For ‘Net-Zero Society’ by 2025

https://interestingengineering.com/south-korea-commits-61-billion-for-net-zero-society-by-2025

. July 18, 2020 at 7:56 pm

Major new pipelines and mines must show path to ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050 to get approved – The Globe and Mail

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/business/industry-news/energy-and-resources/article-major-new-pipelines-and-mines-must-show-path-to-net-zero-emissions/

. July 23, 2020 at 1:51 pm

Apple’s 2030 carbon-neutral pledge covers itself and suppliers – BBC News

https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53485560

. August 6, 2020 at 9:46 pm

What Does Net Zero Emissions Mean for Big Oil? Not What You’d Think

BP, Shell, and other companies say they’ll address climate change. But their pledges fall far short of what’s needed to meet global climate goals.

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