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What’s the Difference Between a Low-Carbon and Zero-Carbon Future? Survival

Governments, media and industry use ‘low-carbon economy’ frame to continue business as usual.

Donald Gutstein 2 Apr

Donald Gutstein, a former professor in the School of Communication at SFU, is the author of The Big Stall, Harperism and four other books on links between corporations, politics and media. He is a research collaborator with the Corporate Mapping Project.

In a recent Vancouver Sun column describing the introduction of enabling legislation for the Shell LNG Canada project in the B.C. legislature, Vaughn Palmer ends with these words:

“The finance ministry reckons that even with the estimated $6 billion in relief over 40 years, the province would still reap $22 billion in revenues over the same period. Without the project, returns would, of course, be zero.”

It’s a compelling comparison. With the project we can pay for schools, hospitals and poverty reduction. Without it, we have nothing.

Yet it is fallacious, a comparison promoted by Big Oil and adopted by most governments. It takes our minds off alternatives.

The correct comparison is between revenues generated from $40 billion invested in fracking and fossil fuel production versus revenues generated from $40 billion invested in renewable energy, such as solar, wind and thermal.

Two similar-sounding phrases lie at the heart of this issue. One has gained predominance, the other relegated to the margins of climate change discourse. The first is “low-carbon economy,” an economy in which even fracking and liquefied natural gas have a role. The second is “zero-carbon economy,” an economy in which no more greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere. In this second framing, the goal must be an economy fuelled entirely by renewable, non-carbon-emitting sources.

As the Palmer column illustrates, renewable energy has been largely written out of the script in the climate change narrative being constructed in B.C. and across Canada. For one thing, a renewable energy future would likely mean the end of Royal Dutch Shell and the other fossil fuel supermajors.

The difference between low- and zero-emission economies may seem insignificant, but will mean additional billions of dollars flowing into fossil fuel company coffers. A low-carbon economy will allow industry to continue getting away with further tar sands developments and more fracked gas and LNG projects, and the pipelines that go with them. With vast sums of money going into research on lowering emissions intensities (emissions per barrel of oil, for example), that much less will be available for zero-carbon energy research.

As to which is the correct option, the scientific answer is clear. Six days after Premier John Horgan and Royal Dutch Shell announced that the largest private sector project in Canadian history would proceed, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a special report.

This report, prepared by 90 climate scientists, assessed the impact of a 1.5-degree Celsius increase in global temperature compared to the two-degree increase mandated in the Paris Agreement. The differences are stark: fewer deaths and illnesses, reduced sea level rises, less habitat and ecosystem destruction, fewer heat waves. And much more.

To have a chance of holding the increase to 1.5 degrees, the IPCC says, carbon dioxide emissions must decline by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, and reach net-zero around 2050 — 31 years from now.

But while scientists raise the alarm about the risks of not reducing carbon emissions to zero fast enough, Big Oil worked diligently to frame the energy future as low- and not zero-carbon.

New Yorker cartoonist Bob Mankoff hit the nail on the head: “And so, while the end-of-the-world scenario will be rife with unimaginable horrors, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit,” he offered.

Politicians may govern us, the saying goes, but ideas govern politicians. So whoever controls the ideas about how to address global warming — scientists or the fossil fuel industry — will prevail.

The idea of a low-carbon economy, and its very first mentions in the news media, arose in the United Kingdom under Labour prime minister Tony Blair. In the 1990s, Blair set up a committee of business leaders to advise his government on environmental issues. In 1998, the year after the Kyoto Protocol was signed, Blair tasked the committee to provide advice on global warming.

Conveniently, perhaps, the committee was chaired by one Chris Fay, the former chairman and chief executive of Shell UK. Fay had just been awarded a CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) “for services to the gas and oil industry.”

The committee proposed the goal of a low-carbon economy, to be achieved with corporations guiding the way. This soon became British government policy and the model for much of the world over succeeding decades.

It reached Canada’s shores in 2005, when the Paul Martin government released its plan to meet Canada’s Kyoto targets. The plan was intended to “mobilize Canadians in a national effort to create a low-carbon economy.”

Some environmentalists like Dale Marshall, then of the David Suzuki Foundation, criticized the “weak targets for industry.” Despite this flaw, or perhaps because of it, the low-carbon economy directed by Big Oil became the prevailing reality.

As for mandating strong targets for industry to reach a zero-carbon economy, this approach was quickly sidelined by Big Oil’s allies and a compliant media.

Greenpeace Australia’s efforts in 2003 to judge Australian firms on whether they supported a zero-carbon economy were attacked by the country’s neoliberal Institute of Public Affairs. It lambasted Greenpeace’s efforts to evaluate corporate social responsibility as “inflicting darkness, poverty, and malnutrition on millions of people.” Similar efforts in the U.K. to establish the legitimacy of a zero-carbon economy were dismissed by the neoliberal Adam Smith Institute.

In Canada, the strategy for dealing with the zero-carbon economy seems to be to ignore it. Most citizens are likely unaware there is such a thing. A database search shows that over the years Canadian newspapers have mentioned the term “low-carbon economy” 3,057 times (as of April 1, 2019). In contrast, they’ve mentioned “zero-carbon economy” 50 times. That’s a ratio of 61 to one. At the Globe and Mail it’s 160 to six, Vancouver Sun, 121 to three. In its 21 years of publication, the National Post has never mentioned the term zero-carbon economy, while mentioning the low-carbon variety 108 times.

(CBC’s The National and CTV National News have rarely addressed either low- or zero-carbon economies.)

Unsurprisingly then, the low-carbon future is the logic of CleanBC, the answer to global warming from the government of Premier Horgan. He introduced the plan in October 2018 with these words: “The low-carbon economy we build together will bring opportunities and jobs throughout the province.”

George Heyman, Horgan’s minister of environment and climate change, agreed. “We can build a low-carbon economy that includes all sectors and all workers,” he offered.

And Horgan’s legislative partner, Andrew Weaver, the BC Green leader, was on board. “CleanBC will position our province for success as the world transitions to low-carbon solutions.”

The CleanBC document follows the trend. Low carbon is mentioned 33 times, zero carbon once, as in “switch to... low or zero-carbon fuel.”

Reinforcing the framing are civil society organizations like Clean Energy Canada. Executive director Merran Smith co-chaired the province’s Climate Solutions and Clean Growth Advisory Council that helped shape CleanBC.

The think tank, embedded in Simon Fraser University, says its mission is to accelerate Canada’s clean energy transition, but doesn’t say much on the possibility of a zero-carbon transition.

A search of its website returns 110 hits for low-carbon economy and one lonely hit for zero-carbon economy. That one mention occurred during a conversation hosted by Smith at the Globe 2014 conference in Vancouver.

Jules Kortenhorst of the Rocky Mountain Institute said then that we must transition to a zero-carbon economy within a decade (by 2024). Clean Energy Canada summarized the discussion in this way: “As the session came to a close, the one clear message emerged: We need to transition to an inclusive, low-carbon economy.”

The corporate strategy seems to be to avoid talk of zero carbon whenever possible. When it becomes necessary to mention the zed-word, tie it to technological fixes like carbon capture and storage.

That’s the approach Shawn McCarthy, the Globe and Mail’s energy reporter, took covering the IPCC’s recent 1.5-degree report. McCarthy didn’t use the word zero-carbon. To limit warming to 1.5 degrees, he wrote, “emissions would have to be cut by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, with further action required by 2050.”

Further action? As for what that might be, he says little beyond discussing strategies to remove carbon dioxide from energy production by burying it deep underground or directly from the atmosphere by turning it into commercial products. In these cases, Big Oil can continue to produce fossil fuel and emit carbon dioxide.

It’s not like Royal Dutch Shell is unaware of a zero-carbon economy. The company worked quietly to position itself as a leader en route to a “net-zero emissions future,” a strategy that was revealed in a leaked 2016 Shell call for proposals seeking a public relations firm to promote a scenario titled “A Better Life with a Healthy Planet: Pathways to Net-Zero Emissions.”

The winning PR firm had its work cut out for it, because none of the pathways were routed through Shell country. The company admits in the document that “while we seek to enhance our operations’ average energy intensity... we have no immediate plans to move to a net-zero emissions portfolio over our investment horizon of 10-20 years. Net-zero emissions, as discussed in this document, is a collective ambition that is applied in the aggregate...” Net-zero emissions for everyone else, but not for us.

The PR firm that did win the competition evidently went right to work. In March 2018, to great fanfare, Shell released its strategy, dubbed “The Sky Scenario.”

In this fantasy, the world can achieve net-zero carbon status in 2070, not by cutting emissions to zero, but by constructing 10,000 carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities that will bury 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year underground. It’s a fantasy because the technology does not yet exist and may never do so. Even if it did, the cost would be upwards of $10 trillion. Meanwhile Shell can continue to produce oil and gas as it invests in electricity distribution networks to cut its carbon footprint — not to zero, though.

Shell does operate one very expensive CCS plant. To deal with emissions from the Athabasca Oil Sands Project near Fort McMurray, the oil company developed the $1.35-billion Quest carbon capture and storage facility. The project is heavily subsidized — 64 per cent — by the federal and Alberta governments, and will bury 30 million tonnes of compressed carbon dioxide two kilometres underground.

Perhaps a similar project will be needed for LNG Canada to reduce its emissions, with taxpayers picking up most of the tab.

The challenge must be to bring the zero-carbon future into public consciousness. A simple message repeated endlessly is the proven method for doing this.

The message is already out there, most recently delivered by U.S. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She calls for the U.S. to reach net-zero by 2030 through a mass mobilization of economic resources.

Big Oil’s henchmen in the Senate are working overtime to crush the initiative in its infancy. But given massive support and promotion, the zero-carbon economy may be an idea whose time has come.  [Tyee]

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