VANCOUVER – Increasingly, government and industry talk about “net zero” when it comes to emissions reduction targets. But what does this really mean?
Reducing emissions to zero is a clear concept, but “net zero” muddies the waters in that some greenhouse gas or carbon emissions are permitted as long as they are balanced by “negative emissions” or carbon removals through nature or engineered solutions, explains senior economist Marc Lee, author of the new report, Dangerous Distractions: Canada’s carbon emissions and the pathway to net zero.
Reducing fossil fuel emissions and increasing carbon removals are the two objectives of net zero, and the federal government proposes they can be traded against each other, he adds.
“The federal government hasn’t tabled any detailed plans about what it means by ‘net zero,’ although an advisory panel has been tasked with making recommendations,” Lee says.
“‘Net zero’ has the potential to be a dangerous distraction that reduces the political pressure to achieve actual emission reductions in favour of wishful thinking about future technologies and nature-based solutions,” he explains.
For many years, Canada has wanted to have it both ways: talking about climate action while ramping up production of fossil fuels that are the primary cause of climate change, Lee says, noting a recent International Energy Agency report that calls for an end to investments in new fossil fuel projects like coal mines and oil and gas wells.
“This provides a critical context for Canadian policy-makers that can be summarized as it’s time for a managed wind down of fossil fuel production in Canada,” says Lee.
Global and domestic experience with carbon offset markets shows many complicated accounting methodologies that give a false sense that emissions are being reduced elsewhere. And Lee says it’s impossible to know what carbon removal technologies of the future could achieve. He recommends investing public resources in bona fide solutions like renewables and a just transition from fossil fuels.
“At this point, policy-makers seem enamored of the idea of carbon markets but have not grasped the challenges in making a functioning market. Public funds would be better spent on renewables and other climate action measures while leaving the fossil fuels in the ground and avoiding further lock-in to fossil fuel infrastructure,” Lee says.
In order for Canada to meet its Paris Agreement obligations, we need to stop burning and extracting fossil fuels at current levels. Engaging in forest conservation and better forest management practices are also important but they should not be seen as a solution to offset emissions from the fossil fuel sector, Lee says. He explains that offset programs are at best a temporary measure that achieves other social and environmental purposes and at worst, they represent a diversion that slows the real action we need to reduce fossil-fuel emissions.