Toronto considering a net zero target for 2040


in Canada, Economics, Politics, Science, The environment, Toronto

Next week, the Toronto city council is considering a proposal to adopt a net zero target by 2040. I have written to my city councillor and the mayor supporting the idea as better than nothing, but also explaining why net zero promises risk prolonging rather than curtailing fossil fuel use:

Councillor Mike Colle and Mayor John Tory,

I am writing to you in support of the effort to establish a net zero CO2 target for Toronto by 2040, but also to warn you about the risks of the net zero concept and to advocate fossil fuel abolition as a preferable policy. Please do not be mistaken about my intent: a net zero target is better than inaction, and ought to be passed. Addressing climate change, however, will require much more.

There is a major risk that “net zero” is a delay and distraction tactic which aligns with the interests of fossil fuel producing states and corporations. It’s a way of distracting from the cause of climate change — fossil fuels — and to conjure a misleading sense that the problem can be solved without getting rid of them. By endorsing net zero targets, advocates of climate action risk playing the role of doctors advocating low-tar or filtered cigarettes: extending the life and profits of a noxious industry through the false suggestion that we can get the benefits while avoiding the consequences.

One of the clearest signals that net zero is being used to extend rather than constrain the history of the fossil fuel industry has been the enthusiasm with which such targets have been adopted by fossil fuel producers. For example, Saudi Arabia has made a net zero promise for 2060 while Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman has said: “We are still going to be the last man standing, and every molecule of hydrocarbon will come out.” This ought to be a warning sign that net zero is a Trojan horse designed to delay policies and regulations to abolish fossil fuels before we catastrophically destabilize the climate.

An examination of scale also calls into question the plausibility of achieving net zero by any means other than ending fossil fuel use. Global oil production was about 88.4 million barrels per day in 2020. That’s about 32.3 billion barrels, each with about 136 kg of oil. That adds up to about 4.3 billion metric tonnes (gigatonnes) of oil taken from the ground every year. Even with COVID-related reductions, global CO2 output in 2020 was about 34.81 gigatonnes. That means to bury all the CO2 from our fossil fuel use, we would need to replicate the global oil industry more than eight times over, except with equipment to extract, compress, and bury CO2. All of this would cost energy and money to run and would produce no profit. It has also taken a century to build that level of oil infrastructure. The idea that we can solve our CO2 problem by burying it simply doesn’t make sense physically, even before you start comparing the cost of avoiding the emissions in the first place to the cost of separating and burying them.

In addition, there are enormous non-climate co-benefits from fossil fuel abolition. A 2021 journal article estimated that just the fine particulate pollution from global fossil fuel combustion causes 10.2 million premature deaths annually. This is another demonstration of how the apparent profitability of the fossil fuel industry arises only because we do not deduct the amount of harm arising from their products. Fossil fuel abolition has the promise of saving ten million lives per year, and more when pollution beyond just particulate matter is factored in.

The other risk of a net zero as opposed to a fossil fuel abolition approach is that it will fail to incentivize the right investments. If families and businesses in Toronto knew that fossil fuel use was going to be coming to an end before mid-century, it would no longer make sense to construct new buildings heated with gas, or countless other pieces of infrastructure that reinforce and prolong our fossil fuel dependence. If we let that investment continue and only get serious about fossil fuel abolition later, it will raise the total cost because we will have wasted money on inappropriate infrastructure which we will need to scrap and because we have delayed the deployment of appropriate infrastructure compatible with a stable climate.

To repeat my main point: adopting a net zero target by 2040 would likely have some benefits and is better than inaction. At the same time, the city council must be mindful of the risk that net zero targets are a concealed fossil fuel promotion strategy, not a strategy to stabilize the climate. It is always tempting to be told that you can get the benefits of a damaging activity while avoiding the harms, but with net zero there are strong reasons to fear that it is a marketing strategy designed to keep letting fossil fuel producers profit while others absorb the costs.

Thank you for your attention,


We’re not going to bury our way out of the fossil fuel catastrophe. What needs burying is the fossil fuel industry itself.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

. December 11, 2021 at 10:29 pm

Why the world needs negative emissions
If negative emissions are to play a role in policy much more needs to be done to make them practically achievable

The problem is cost. Climeworks says it costs between $600 and $800 to separate a tonne of CO2 from the Icelandic air and store it away, though it may do better in larger plants. It sells customers the assurance that a tonne of CO2 has been turned to stone at their behest for over $1,100. Because Orca is exciting and its capacity small, these offsets have more or less sold out. But when non-novelty offsets sell for a hundredth of the price it doesn’t look like a very scalable business. One serious rival, a Canadian firm called Carbon Engineering, says it can offer offsets at $300 a tonne when it gets its 1m-tonne-a-year plant operating in Texas by 2025. That fits with an analysis in an academic journal by the company’s founder, David Keith, that puts the costs of the technology it is using in the $90-240/tonne range.

But the greatest potential for dac lies in changing the overall carbon budget. If applied on a scale close to that of today’s natural-gas industry it could in principle create space in the atmosphere for hundreds of billions of tonnes of further emissions as the world weans itself off fossil fuels and in the decades after it does so.

Such an idea seems utterly fantastical. So do a huge alkalinisation of the oceans and nature-based solutions or beccs plantations on scales approaching those of a small continent. But if they remain so, in all likelihood so will a world where the temperature rise stays “well below 2°C”, in the words of the Paris agreement.

And, unfortunately, fantasies that do not become realities can still have real effects. The “net” in net zero functions as a notional safety net: it lets the world imagine that, if somewhere along the tightrope of emissions reduction it trips or tumbles, negative emissions will break its fall. But this is only true if the capacity for stonking great negative emissions is realised. If it remains a fantasy, such a fall could hurt a lot.

. December 12, 2021 at 1:25 pm

As climate ‘net-zero’ plans grow, so do concerns from scientists

But scientists and monitoring groups are growing increasingly alarmed at the slew of vague net-zero pledges that appear to privilege offsets and future technological breakthroughs over short-term emissions cuts.

“They’re not fit for purpose, any of them,” Myles Allen, director of Oxford Net Zero at the University of Oxford said of today’s carbon neutrality plans.

“You can’t offset continued fossil fuel use by planting trees for very long. Nobody has even acknowledged that in their net-zero plans, even the really ambitious countries,” he told AFP.

Last month’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow saw major emitter India commit for the first time to work towards net-zero emissions, joining the likes of China, the United States and the European Union.

According to Net Zero Tracker (NZT), 90 percent of global GDP is now covered by some sort of net-zero plan. But it said that the vast majority remain ill-defined.

Take offsets. These are when countries or companies deploy measures—such as tree planting or direct CO2 capture—to compensate for the emissions they produce. NZT found that 91 percent of country targets, and 48 percent of public company targets, failed to even specify whether offsets feature in their net-zero plans.

. December 12, 2021 at 8:41 pm

Why the Oil Industry’s Pivot to Carbon Capture and Storage – While It Keeps on Drilling – Isn’t a Climate Change Solution

. December 20, 2021 at 10:56 am

Toronto adopts net-zero emissions target for 2040
Advocates say funding for the new plan will be the real challenge.
Sebastian Leck

. December 23, 2021 at 2:15 am

Fossil fuels are obviously the primary driver of climate change, and yet they are mentioned nowhere in the Paris Agreement and other international climate agreements. Early in the COP26 conference, activists described it to me as the “F-word”—an elephant in the room during global climate talks. But over the course of the conference that elephant was finally addressed—if not at the necessary scale. The U.S. and more than 20 other countries agreed to stop financing most new oil and gas projects. Later, Costa Rica and Denmark formally launched an alliance known as the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, which pushes for a transition away from the energy source.

That momentum was reflected in the final text of the Glasgow Climate Pact, where countries agreed to “phase down” the use of unabated coal power and “phase out” inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. The exact phrasing was subject to much debate, and many were disappointed that the language didn’t go further, but nonetheless the text further solidifies the long-term signal that fossil fuels face difficult future prospects. “The most important outcome of the conference is…the signal that fossil fuels are being phased out,” says Jennifer Morgan, the head of Greenpeace International, just after countries agreed to the pact. “This is the way the world is going quickly.”

. December 24, 2021 at 4:55 pm

Still, another record-setting day should come as no surprise. As Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer health, said earlier in the week, record-high daily case counts will likely be the norm for weeks to come.

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