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Federal Politics

‘Net-Zero’ Emissions May Not Be as Green as You Think

‘Undefined’ term reduces political pressure to take real action on climate change and hedges bets on future solutions, says expert.

Michelle Gamage 21 Jun

Michelle Gamage is a Vancouver-based journalist with an environmental focus who regularly reports on climate for The Tyee. Find her on Twitter @Michelle_Gamage.

Beware the term “net-zero emissions.”

A new Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report is warning net-zero climate goals distract from meaningful emissions reductions by muddying political accountability.

“The problem with net-zero in Canada is that it’s a really undefined term that gets thrown around a lot. A lot of people like it, and I did as well — it’s got ‘zero’ in it, and we’ve been calling for zero for a long time,” says report author Marc Lee, a senior economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

“But after I started exploring the ‘net,’ I saw a lot of loopholes for federal or provincial governments to try to perpetuate business as usual and not commit to the deep emissions reductions that we need to be making to be consistent with climate science,” Lee said.

The federal government has pledged to hit net-zero emissions by 2050, but its wording on what that means is vague. Its website says net zero means Canada’s economy “either emits no greenhouse gas emissions or offsets its emissions, for example, through actions such as tree planting or employing technologies that can capture carbon before it is released into the air.”

During the 2020 election, the BC NDP said it would bring in legislation requiring net-zero emissions by 2050 but has yet to introduce a plan.

Reducing emissions to zero is a clear objective, Lee says, but net zero is less clear. It suggests some carbon emissions are allowed so long as those emissions are balanced by future actions to reduce pollution.

Technology and nature-based solutions to pull carbon dioxide emissions from the air do exist, but Lee says they each come with some serious shortcomings, and we can’t rely on them to balance or subtract from ongoing emissions from Canada’s fossil fuel industry.

Lee says his report, Dangerous Distractions: Canada’s Carbon Emissions and the Pathway to Net Zero, takes aim at federal climate policy that claims Canada can tackle climate change while expanding and maintaining its fossil fuel industry.

The only way to effectively reduce carbon dioxide emissions is to reduce the amounts of fossil fuels we pull out of the ground and burn, domestically and around the world, Lee says.

When asked why B.C.’s climate goals focus on net zero instead of real zero, a Ministry of Environment statement said its CleanBC climate action plan already includes emissions reductions, like the electrification of upstream natural gas and methane reduction regulations.

“On top of these efforts, B.C. has applied emission reductions from B.C.-based forest-based carbon offset projects every year to our official emissions tally, and we expect to continue this practice of using ‘net emissions’ in future years,” the ministry wrote.

Canada isn’t alone in pledging to hit net-zero emissions by 2050 — 120 countries, including all in the G7, have pledged the same goal. China says it will get there by 2060.

Strategies to reduce emissions generally focus on human-made carbon capture, letting trees pull carbon dioxide from the air in nature-based solutions, or creating a trading system where companies and governments can buy and sell carbon credits.

In Dangerous Distractions, here’s how Lee says each of those strategies are straw men and knocks them down:

Human-made carbon capture

Large industrial emitters can build and install carbon capture and storage, or CCS, systems to nab emissions on site, but at best this captures up to 90 per cent of emissions, and likely less in practice, Lee warns.

Accounting for the entire lifecycle of a CCS project also puts them as net emitters, because they require so much energy to build and operate. CCS systems on a fossil fuel power plant can use up to 25 per cent of the energy generated by the plant, the report says.

Large-scale CCS also costs money. In Canada, these projects are often funded by government subsidies. Alberta is asking the federal government to invest $30 billion in CCS over the next decade, and Saskatchewan has already received $1.5 billion in CCS funding.

In an emailed statement, the B.C. Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy said CCS technologies hold “significant potential” to offset emissions from industry that is inherently difficult to decarbonize, like aviation fuel or livestock. “For those sources, carbon removal may be a lower-cost solution that supports cost-effective climate action for British Columbians,” the ministry said.

The province is considering a wide range of policy options and technologies to hit its 2030 emissions targets, including a regulatory framework for “safe and effective underground carbon storage,” the ministry said. As the price of CCS drops these technologies could even help B.C. achieve negative emissions, where it sequesters more than it emits, the ministry added.

Lee’s report argues that public money would be better spent on renewable investments, and the government should mandate industry to have CCS on all new oil and gas projects and give existing projects until 2030 to build CCS systems.

Another “standard fiction” of carbon capture, the report says, is letting trees pull carbon from the air and then burning them for energy, while capturing that carbon and storing it deep underground.

But the technology for this system isn’t scalable to combat Canada’s emissions, let alone the world’s, the report says. Plus, we’d need to harvest and burn an area up to twice the size of India every year. That would likely compete with the need for agricultural space.

Leave it to the trees

Governments like to point to forests as large carbon sinks that will do a lot of the legwork to pull emissions from the air.

But the federal government is using “dodgy accounting” that doesn’t look at the whole picture when it comes to carbon emissions from our national forests, the report says.

For starters, it doesn’t count areas impacted by pests or wildfires when calculating emissions. That means it excludes around one-quarter of Canada’s managed forests, which just so happen to do the most carbon emitting of all forests.

By excluding the heavily emitting areas, the government can say its forests are carbon sinks. But forests can emit around 275 megatonnes of carbon dioxide in a single year, the report notes. For comparison, in 2019 Canada reported emitting a total 730 megatonnes of CO2, not including emissions from forests.

These “natural disturbances” are excluded from the emissions count, because it’s outside of human control and, if included, could mask human-caused climate impacts, the report says.

B.C. also excludes forests impacted by wildfire, pests and logging from its official emissions count and instead lists the numbers under “forest management,” which are published alongside its emissions totals. The emissions are “currently excluded from emissions totals because many of these sources are largely outside of human control and there remain challenges in accurately quantifying the impact of provincial policy on them,” the Ministry of Environment said in an emailed statement.

Bottom line, Lee says, is “these lands are a massive source of emissions.”

The best way for forests to combat climate change is to leave old growth standing, he adds. This should be a public service and should not be counted towards offsetting emissions.

Carbon offsets

The federal government is developing a greenhouse gas offset system, which will allow large industrial polluters to buy offsets to balance their emissions.

True offsets will need to pull carbon dioxide from the air and store it back underground, the report says. But the program will also count offsets as measures that cut future emissions that would have otherwise happened — and that’s led to bad math in the past.

In 2013, the B.C. government was caught claiming fossil fuel projects were carbon neutral because the government didn’t cut down a forest. The future emissions avoided from logging were used to subtract from the real emissions from the fossil fuel project.

Canada should reduce its fossil fuel use and protect its forests, in addition to using better forest management practices to increase how much carbon forests can suck up, the report says. When carbon offsets are used, they should have hard limits and be restricted to a 10-to-20-year transition period.

B.C.'s forest-based carbon offsets are strictly regulated using “some of the highest standards in the world,” the Ministry of Environment said in an emailed statement. Any offsets projects need to demonstrate the “reduction or enhancement of removal” of emissions beyond business-as-usual, and the project will be validated by an independent, accredited third party and monitored for 100 years after for reversal of emissions, like wildfire.

Lee is equally skeptical of Internationally Traded Mitigation Opportunities, which he says will undermine the global collective action needed to hit net-zero emissions by 2050.

Governments could trade ITMOs back and forth at specific times to hit their net emissions goals without ever cutting back on their fossil fuel use, Lee says.

Canada has not yet decided if it will use ITMOs to hit its climate goals, or how much it will rely on them.  [Tyee]

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