Recovering to Net Zero Emissions

Everything has changed. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the world’s response to it, has led to a dramatic drop in oil use and rising unemployment. This, paired with record-low oil prices, has many now asking, “how do we build back better?”

While some are eager to get to the way things were, many of us welcome the space these strange times have created for exploring bold new ideas about how we live, work, and play together.

In Canada, all levels of government have demonstrated a willingness to set aside political differences and roll-out new financial supports. They have demonstrated what is possible with political will. Now, in addition to our solid response to the pandemic, we must address the ongoing climate crisis.

In December 2019, the new Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Jonathan Wilkinson, pledged to introduce federal legislation for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. As we recover from COVID-19, we must determine how that will be achieved.

The October 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated clearly that even meeting the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement requires, “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems.”

It is clear that, fundamentally, a societal shift is required.

CPJ recently joined a broad coalition of civil society organizations that presented Principles for a Just Recovery, urging the federal government to prioritize human health and wellbeing; strengthen social supports; support workers and communities; build resilience, solidarity, and equity; and, honour Indigenous rights.

The system change we need will be achieved when we begin with what matters most: health, wellbeing, community, and nature. Economic systems, technological developments, and public policy should then be created in ways that get Canada to net-zero emissions by 2050.

A 2019 report published by Nature Climate Change suggests that in the 18 developed economies that reduced emissions between 2005 and 2015, two factors were key: the replacement of fossil fuels by renewable energy and decreases in energy use. They achieved these changes with a breadth of (up to 81) complementary policies and regulations. In other words, “a complete suite” of measures focused on the promotion of energy efficiency and renewables.

Consider this in the Canadian context where the economy—especially in the West—is defined by oil. For some, work in oil and gas is part of their identity. We have the second highest per capita energy use among OECD countries, and 81 per cent of national GHG emissions are energy-related. Of course, a big part of this transition is mindset. Are we willing to imagine ourselves differently?

Norway is Europe’s largest oil producer. It is also a global leader in the adoption of electric vehicles. Over 75 per cent of new cars sales are electric. Electricity generation in Norway is nearing 100 per cent renewable.And, in 2019, the country grabbed international headlines when it divested $13 billion from oil, gas, and coal.

Norway isn’t a perfect model, but they have succeeded in bending the curve and demonstrated that significant change is possible.

The United Kingdom also has some valuable lessons to share. In 2008, they passed their Climate Change Act (UK CCA). Since then, GHG emissions have been reduced 44 per cent below 1990 levels, attributable largely to the inclusion of accountability measures (budgets, audits, and other tools similar to those used in financial planning) in the UK CCA legal framework.

Canada, by contrast, has yet to meet one of its international climate action commitments— ever.

Drawing on the UK example and subsequent legislation in other countries, Ecojustice (working with several Canadian environmental NGOs) has identified international best practices that they recommend guide the development of a Canadian Climate Accountability Act:

  • long-term emissions reduction targets paired with clear Ministerial oversight and responsibility;
  • regular planning and reporting that includes legislated time-bound obligations;
  • five-year carbon budgets with corresponding regular impact reports; and,
  • the establishment of an authoritative, independent expert climate advisory panel.

Fortunately, models for climate action accountability already exist in Canada. Namely, Manitoba’s 2018 Climate and Green Plan Implementation Act, British Columbia’s revised 2019 Climate Change Accountability Act, and Quebec’s forthcoming climate bill.

Decisions will surely need to be made about the specific suite of policies required to decarbonize the Canadian economy. First, however, we need to be clear about what we aim to accomplish, the values we hold, and the priorities we have for our families, our communities, and our country.

Let’s not endeavour to “get back to normal,” but rather to build back better, putting people and the planet first.

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1 thought on “Recovering to Net Zero Emissions”

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