Canada has no intention to reduce its carbon emissions

Why “net zero” doesn’t quite mean zero emissions

industrial plant with smoke
PHOTO: Ella Ivanescu / Unsplash

By: Evan Eschelmuller, SFU Student

Canada has plans to be “net-zero” by 2050, which means cutting greenhouse gas emission rates to as low as possible. Beyond that, the country intends to cut its emissions to roughly half of 2005 levels by 2030. How is this possible given Canada’s proposed increase of domestic oil and gas production and expansion projects? In short — it isn’t possible. Canada is not on pace to reduce its emissions to stated targets. And, even if we were to meet our specific goals, the way countries count emissions is impeding our ability to reduce emissions globally.

Typically, a country’s CO2 emissions are measured based on domestic production. This means that Canada, like other countries, measures its carbon footprint by assessing only CO2 emitted at home. As a result, Canada produces oil and gas for other countries to emit, while claiming we’re reducing emissions. We see this with Canadian oil companies committing to be “net-zero,” while still producing fossil fuels for global consumers.

This system is problematic for a couple of reasons. The currently rising global temperature means we’re in store for a range of increasingly bad climate change related issues in the coming decades, and we know CO2 emissions have a direct impact on climate change. Given our government’s subpar efforts to combat carbon emissions, we won’t be able to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5C compared to pre-industrial levels. There’s also a problem with the incentive structure of “going green:” since oil and gas will be produced on smaller levels in the coming years, corporations are rushing to be one of the last few producers. Because other countries have lower emissions targets, companies will provide them with fossil fuels for as long as possible. 

Allowing fossil fuel producers to misrepresent the full scope of their emissions by excluding global exports incentivises production and expansion projects. This system encourages everyone to continue producing fossil fuels, and even expand their production, as long as their emissions on the production side of things decrease dramatically. When individual oil and gas producers all have this same incentive, the sum total of these emissions will be disastrous for the planet

Why are we doing things this way? Surely it’s not lost on policymakers that emissions in one region affect the entire planet’s climate. We may be in this situation in part due to the fossil fuel industry lobbying governments for more friendly policies for themselves. For example, there’s been an increasing number of fossil fuel lobbyists at the annual UN Conference of the Parties (COP) climate conference, with over 600 in attendance this year at COP27. Regardless of the causes, we need to rethink the way we measure emissions globally. The current system doesn’t do enough to disincentivize fossil fuel producers from continuing and expanding production. Instead, corporations should be incentivized to move away from fossil fuels entirely. This could be achieved by phasing out government fossil fuel subsidies and replacing them with renewable energy subsidies.

A radical shift away from fossil fuels will be necessary if we want a livable planet. This will be difficult, especially for countries whose economies rely on fossil fuels. That being said, it’s hard to see what other options we have. Anything other than a radical shift towards renewable energy, and global downscaling of oil and gas, will leave our planet in an unrecognizable state. The fossil fuel industry’s lobbying power needs to be addressed. Canada also needs to take responsibility for the emissions we produce, whether they’re emitted at home or abroad. Failure to do so will leave future generations paying heavy costs so current generations can continue living comfortably. None of the options here are easy, but the current path we are on is not sustainable — the sooner we admit this, the better.