Net Zero – Ambitious climate target or fairy tale?

When the Canadian government pledged to make the country’s greenhouse gas emissions net zero by 2050, followed a year later by a similar pledge from BC’s government, it was widely interpreted as an ambitious climate target. But when the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) and Shell Canada support the target, Canadians should ask whether it’s so ambitious after all. Do oil and gas companies expect to see their profits continue under a net zero target?

How we answer these questions will have huge implications for climate laws. Canada’s Parliament is currently debating the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, or Bill C-12, which would commit the country to achieving a net zero by 2050 target, while the BC government plans to begin consultations on legislating that target in the province in the future.

It turns out that “net zero” is a malleable concept – leaving room for a lot of wishful thinking. In particular, industry players like CAPP and Shell seem to be hoping that the promise of unproven and undeveloped technologies that can pull carbon dioxide out of the air means that there is room for them to keep producing their products into the future.

A recent report by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices (CICC), Canada’s Net Zero Future, does a good job setting out some of the opportunities to achieve net zero – but also shows what type of future CAPP and Shell (and pro-oil industry politicians) might be banking on.

If we don’t insist on a strong interpretation of the term, the focus on net zero may lead to a watering down of existing commitments and see Canada take an unsustainable path into the future – a continuation of the new form of climate denialism.

What is meant by “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions?

Climate change occurs when the blanket of heat-trapping greenhouse gases around the world gets thicker.

Unlike many pollutants that dissipate quickly when we stop using them, most greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere year after year. The world has been extracting and burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow, putting carbon dioxide and methane ­­– two potent greenhouse gases – into the Earth’s atmosphere, causing the blanket to get thicker and the Earth to quickly warm. More carbon dioxide is being added to the atmosphere than is being absorbed by carbon sinks like forests, wetlands or oceans.

“Net zero” refers to taking as much of the greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere as we put in. In the words of the CICC:

Achieving net zero emissions means that Canada either reduces its emissions to zero or finds ways to pull any emissions it continues to generate out of the atmosphere (and store them permanently) rather than leaving them there to trap heat and contribute to climate change. (p. 8)

If the world can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, with developed countries like Canada ideally reaching the goal earlier, then we have a chance of keeping global temperature rise to 1.5°C – which would avoid some of the worst impacts of climate change. Canada, as a developed country with economic and technological capacity (and a huge land mass), should really be getting to net zero before 2050.

For climate activists, “net zero” emissions means dramatically reducing our greenhouse gases by reducing our energy use, ensuring that the energy we use comes from zero-emissions sources and developing a more sustainable society. We want to get to the point that the natural processes that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and lock it away permanently can keep up with our emissions. Ultimately, we want those natural systems to actually remove more carbon dioxide from our overheated atmosphere than what we’re burning (net-negative).

However, some governments and oil and gas companies are banking not on reducing emissions, but on increasing the amount of carbon dioxide that we can suck out of the atmosphere, using technologies known as Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR).

What is Carbon Dioxide Removal and does it work?

At the broadest level CDR refers to any approach that sucks carbon dioxide out of the air and then stores it in a more or less permanent state.

The starting question, then, is “Do we know technically how to suck carbon dioxide out of air?” and the answer is a clear yes.

If you take a walk in the woods, or by a wetland, or along the seashore, you will see all kinds of plants and ecosystems that are taking carbon dioxide out of the air and turning it into wood, plant matter and ocean sediments and eventually transferring it into the ground. It is no wonder that tree planting, retaining bogs and adopting soil-friendly approaches to agriculture are seen as part of the solution to climate change. These “nature-based solutions” play a crucial role in addressing climate change, but there are limits on their ability to dig us out of the fossil fuel mess we’ve made for ourselves.

Increasingly, fossil fuel industry proponents are banking not only on nature-based carbon dioxide removal (CDR) but also (and more so) on technology-will-save-us solutions. As CICC puts it:

The other path to negative emissions is through technology. New technologies are being developed to capture carbon dioxide from the air and then either sequester it underground or trap it in industrial materials. (p. 32)

The idea of using a series of chemical reactions to suck carbon dioxide out of smoke stacks and other concentrated plumes of pollution has been used for years, a process known as Carbon Capture. This process is not emissions negative per se, but rather it reduces the concentrations of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere from an industrial facility. Not only is it not net-negative, but the carbon dioxide recovered is often pumped underground to force more oil out of exhausted oil wells (known as “Enhanced Oil Recovery” or EOR), a process that ultimately results in more carbon ending up in the atmosphere.

Only a handful of highly subsidized demonstrated projects are what is known as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), meaning that they permanently store captured carbon underground (Shell’s Quest Energy is the only Canadian example).

More recently, however, some companies have applied similar technology, together with lots of fans, to suck carbon dioxide directly out of the air, a process known as Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage (DACCS). This approach, as exemplified in BC by the Squamish-based company, Carbon Engineering, could offer a true emissions negative technology – if it is practical at scale and if the carbon dioxide is stored permanently.

Scientists who reviewed the available studies on CCS and CDR found (among other things) that:

  • Commercial CCS operations add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than they remove;
  • The current scale of CDR and CCS is minute compared to the scale that would be required to be a significant factor in addressing climate change;
  • The global storage capacity for CO2 is unproven and uncertain, and there are significant questions about where and how much CO2 can be permanently stored;
  • Getting CO2 to storage locations would require a massive network of pipelines;
  • Efforts to ramp up CDR will involve massive additional energy demands of their own.

Studies suggest that removing carbon dioxide using DACCS and other CDR technology will not result in the expected reductions in atmospheric carbon dioxide, due to the complex interplay between carbon sinks. According to these studies, when carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere, oceans and other carbon sinks will release carbon dioxide that has been stored there, creating a “rebound” that cancels out some of the atmospheric removals.

In a detailed post on DACCS, cleantech strategist Michael Barnard concludes that the energy and financial costs of DACCS are likely to be unmanageable. He quotes Professor Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University:

Synthetic [DACCS] is not recommended in a 100% renewable energy world. SDACCS is basically a cost, or tax, added to the cost of fossil fuel generation, so it raises the cost of using fossil fuels while reducing no air pollution and providing no energy security. To the contrary, it permits the fossil fuel industry to expand its devastation of the environment and human health by allowing mining and air pollution to continue at an even higher cost to consumers than with no carbon capture.

The Canadian Institute for Climate Choices views CCS from concentrated plumes as a “safe bet” which could be ramped up in the short-term. Based on conversations with CICC staff, this is because there is already a commercial track record of using Carbon Capture and the injection of carbon dioxide underground in Enhanced Oil Recovery processes. CICC also noted that Canada’s landscape has large areas of potentially suitable storage sites in the Prairies.

However, when it comes to emissions negative DACCS technology, CICC is much more skeptical, repeatedly referring to it as “highly uncertain” (most other “wild card” technologies were viewed only by CICC as “uncertain”) due to significant economic and policy challenges with the technology.

Although Canada’s oil and gas industry is pretty enthusiastic about CCS and DACCS, internationally some energy companies are more skeptical. For instance, the Italy-based company Enel SpA is phasing out its sale of gas in favour of renewable energy, rejecting the potential for CCS to offset the climate impacts of gas. CEO Salvatore Bernabei stated flatly: “We don’t believe in technology that offsets CO2. … These are very big and complex projects. And at the end, they will not solve the problem. We already tried CCS in the past and it didn’t lead to success. So why do it again?”

Other organizations have highlighted the challenges in ramping up even “safe bet”, non-negative CCS technology.

So while CDR may “work” in a theoretical sense, we are skeptical that it (or even CCS) would “work” in practice and on the scale needed to address climate change, and as a tool to get us to zero emissions.


The role of CDR in Canada’s net zero target

Not polluting is pretty much always preferable to cleaning up your mess after you’ve polluted.

In our view, Canada, and the world, should be moving rapidly to reduce our actual greenhouse gas emissions rather than relying on carbon capture technologies to reach net zero. This will ultimately require the elimination of the use of fossil fuels for energy production.

The role for CDR, if any, should be to get us into carbon negative territory (to undo the harm already caused to the global atmosphere and increase the likelihood of keeping the world’s global temperatures at safe levels). If there are a small number of industries that we cannot do without and simply cannot achieve zero emissions, we can then discuss whether there is a role for CCS and CDR to reduce emissions from those industries. However, that should be a last resort.

Unfortunately, some industrial players are hoping for a future in which oil and gas production and use continue on a large scale, offset by even larger amounts of DACCS and other emissions-negative technology. Here’s how the CICC describes that future:

[F]ossil fuels would remain the dominant source of energy, but their emissions would be offset to net zero through extensive use of negative emissions solutions. This would likely include a large role for direct air capture paired with [CCS], which would mainly sequester captured emissions underground (something that Canada possesses the geology for but many other countries do not), though emissions could also be fixed into materials. In this system, negative emissions technologies would themselves often be powered by fossil fuels whose emissions were also offset.

To emphasize again, much of this technology barely exists, let alone operates at the scale, efficiency and cost that would be required. The CICC report itself describes this future as “a seductive but risky possibility” which could only come about if “a very specific (and uncertain) combination of outcomes and conditions comes to pass – many of which are highly uncertain, not to mention outside of Canada’s control.”

While the CICC felt that this scenario could have advantages – allowing “incumbents” to continue using fossil fuel technology – the risk “is that if this system fails to come together as planned, it would create delays in emissions reductions and structural changes, significantly increasing the costs of Canada reaching its target.” Or, we would add, possibly causing us to fail in achieving our targets and/or suffer economically as other countries shift away from fossil fuels.

Ketan Joshi, writing about this “Shell Game”, describes the belief that CDR can justify continued fossil fuel use as:

…roughly equivalent to pouring a cup of coffee, noticing that you’re about to overflow past the brim of the cup, and simply telling onlookers that you’re going to invest in some amazing sponge technology as you tilt the coffee pot downwards and accelerate the flow of coffee.

It is essential that Canada ramp up its climate action immediately, based on real technology that exists now. Realistically achieving our targets will require a more limited role for the fossil fuel industry (many of us believe that the use of oil and gas as an energy force will need to be essentially eliminated). If we delay action because of a promise of future technology which sounds too good to be true, we are unlikely to meet our climate targets.

Principles for Canada’s net zero plans

It is critical that Canada’s “net zero by 2050” goal be a real goal that moves us away from fossil fuels and towards a sustainable future. In our view this will require the government to:

  • Prioritize reducing emissions using known technology – Rather than delaying action in the hope that cheap and scalable CDR will magically appear, we need to prioritize getting Canada’s emissions under control. The CICC agrees, emphasizing that in the short-term Canada needs to be ramping up “safe bet” technology.
  • Treat CDR technology with the skepticism that it deserves – This is a technology that pretends that cleaning up a mess is cheaper and more practical than avoiding the mess in the first place. The laws of physics say otherwise. While elements of CCS do have a track record, its deployment as true net-negative emissions technology does not, and there are huge unanswered questions about scale, cost and actual emissions reductions.
  • Set absolute reduction targets and separate emissions-negative targets – Net zero is enjoying a lot of popularity precisely because it means all things to all people. Let’s adopt clear targets and commit that the vast majority of net zero will be achieved by actually reducing our emissions. Sweden, for example, has set a target of net zero by 2045, with actual emissions reductions of at least 85% (moving thereafter to net-negative). BC has an existing legislated target of 80% actual emissions reductions by 2050, which we hope will remain alongside the new net zero commitment. Academic writers have recommended setting absolute emissions reduction targets and negative emissions targets separately.
  • Ensure that any government funding of CCS and CDR results in actual emissions reductions and restoring atmospheric health – With 85% of CCS actually increasing emissions, public funding going to developing CDR and CCS technology should focus on the “storage” part of the equation and only fund work that, based on a full life-cycle analysis, actually reduces greenhouse gas emissions and which focuses on improving the health of the global atmosphere instead of justifying continued fossil fuel use.
  • Require polluters to take responsibility for their emissions – Rather than subsidizing the fossil fuel industry to start storing carbon dioxide, government should be requiring the industry to take responsibility for the hazards posed by its products and start restoring the global atmosphere. While this Ted Talk by Professor Miles Allen of Oxford University is probably too optimistic about CDR, he is 100% correct that it should be oil and gas companies paying for it, and the cost of CDR increasingly needs to be reflected in the cost of fossil fuels. 

As Canada moves forward with its net zero target, we need to ask ourselves what it says about our society that so many people want to believe that we can have our fossil fuel cake and eat it too – that the magic of technology can allow us to continue polluting the world on a massive scale without consequences. Canada’s climate laws and plans – and our definition of our 2050 net zero target – need to ensure that we are actually doing our part to fight climate change, rather than putting our faith in “seductive” unicorns and fairy tales.

Andrew Gage - Staff Lawyer