Climate Emergency: Aiming for net-zero emissions between 2025 and 2030

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By Anthony Garoufalis-Auger and Daniel Horen Greenford – Rapid Decarbonization Group

The problem and the solution

The widely circulated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) “target” for Canada to cutting emissions by approximately half by 2030 is not sufficiently ambitious. Aligning with the global average target is unscientific, inequitable, and represents the lowest possible ambition on Canada’s part to contribute to global efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C. There are also issues with this IPCC “target” that puts at great risk our ability to achieve that temperature goal. Instead, Canada should aim to reach zero emissions between 2025 and 2030. This is the level of ambition required of Canada if the world is to have a good chance of avoiding a climatic catastrophe since many nations who have yet to industrialize will likely emit in excess of the global average. It is also necessary if there is to be any hope of redressing international inequities, since Canada has already emitted more than its fair share of global emissions and the more it continues to emit only adds to its existing ‘climate debt’. Rapid social and economic mobilization on an unprecedented scale will be needed to provoke such ambitious action.

Canada’s fair share of remaining emissions

  • According to IPCC, as of January 2018, the world cannot exceed emissions of more than 420 billion tonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide (CO2) to have a 67% chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C.[1] For perspective, 84% of the preindustrial ‘carbon budget’ of 2620 GtCO2 has already been depleted, with annual emissions still growing today. In 2018, the world emitted 41.5 GtCO2, meaning that as of January 2019, only 378.5 GtCO2 remain under 1.5°C.
  • Not all humans are equally culpable. Historical emissions are the legacy of the wealthiest humans. Nearly half of global emissions come from the wealthiest 10% of humans, while the poorest half of humanity account for only 13% of global emissions. On average, the highest emitters can emit thousands of times as much as the lowest.[2]
  • If what emissions remain under 1.5°C were allocated equally per capita starting in 2018, Canada (with 0.5% of the present and projected global population) would be allocated 1.8 GtCO2. Canada emitted 571 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 in 2017, and would therefore exhaust this amount in three years at its present rate. Keep in mind that this share of remaining global emissions does not account for historical emissions, and when doing so, Canada is not entitled to emit anything under the 1.5°C or 2°C carbon budgets, already being in ‘climate debt’. As of 2014, Canada owed the world 16.9 GtCO2,[3] or $1.7 trillion at $100/tCO2. Therefore, the only way for Canada to do its fair share is by repaying its climate debt to developing nations. This can be achieved through a combination of international assistance to (1) help developing nations decarbonize faster (e.g. financing of renewable energy projects in the developing world) and (2) financing adaption measures needed to defend against unavoidable climate impacts.

Half emissions by 2030 is not enough

  • Canada has signed the Paris Agreement, the latest international climate agreement — which states that since developed countries have emitted more carbon historically, and are likewise more economically prosperous and therefore capable of transitioning — have the responsibility to pursue more ambitious targets than developing countries, and to assist them in their greenhouse gas reduction and adaptation efforts.
  • ‘Half-emissions by 2030’ is taken from the IPCC recent report and is a global average, so it is not specific to Canada, and relies in large part on carbon dioxide removal (CDR). The most common approach proposed is through bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), which would grow biofuels to be burnt to generate electricity in power stations with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) systems that store waste CO2 underground in geological basins. No aspect of this technology has yet to be demonstrated on an industrial scale as safe, reliable, or cost-effective. The IPCC even warns against relying on such technologies: “CDR deployed at scale is unproven, and reliance on such technology is a major risk in the ability to limit warming to 1.5°C.”[4]
  • The IPCC “target” also uses a carbon budget of 580 Gt that only gives us a 50% chance of limiting of warming to 1.5C[5] instead of using a “safer” carbon budget of 420 Gt would which give us a 67% chance. These budgets also exclude Earth system feedbacks like permafrost melt which could release an additional 100 Gt.[6]
  • If Canada adopted this 2030 target, and the world kept within the remaining allowable emissions for limiting warming to 1.5°C, Canada would emit 1.6% of this global emissions from now to 2030. This would be more than three times its share if divided equally by person globally (since, as previously discussed, Canada has 0.5% of the global population).
  • Even with this very generous and grossly inequitable share, making this target would require Canada to reduce its emissions drastically — by approximately 7% per year starting in 2020 to achieve a 50% reduction by 2030, then by about 19% per year to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
  • These decarbonization rates dwarf those required under Canada’s current pledge of 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, adopted by the Harper Conservative administration and left unchanged by the Trudeau Liberal administration. This pledge is only a 13% reduction from present-day emissions levels. Even with such a lenient self-imposed target, Canada’s emissions are projected to remain stable.[7] Emissions reductions in e.g. electricity production and transportation will be entirely offset by growth in emissions from oil and gas production.
  • Even if Canada would adopt and successfully meet the currently proposed target, the least culpable and capable countries would be forced to reduce their emissions faster to compensate. This would create a fundamentally unjust solution that perpetuates colonial legacies by placing additional burdens on developing nations and the global poor for the benefit of the affluent world, hence violating the principles of equity enshrined in the Paris Agreement that Canada has committed to uphold.

How much warming would the “scientific” target lead to?

Relying on the ‘50% by 2030’ target poses an existential risk. If adopted as a target by every country, there would still be a serious possibility that we would go over 2°C. This is because the IPCC assumes in their ‘50% by 2030’ scenario that we will develop and scale up carbon dioxide removal technology at some point near 2050. However, carbon dioxide removal at the scale assumed in their scenarios have yet to be proven to be feasible. If these as yet unproven negative emission technologies succeed, the IPCC 2030 “target” may give us a chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C. However, if those technologies fail, we would end up well over 2°C. The question we must ask ourselves is whether we want to gamble with humanity’s survival based on a belief that unproven technologies may miraculously work in 30 years. Following the precautionary principle we should proceed as if these technologies will not work.

How much and how fast do we need to cut CO2 emissions?

When excluding unproven carbon dioxide removal technologies like BECCS, emissions must fall globally by 58% and 93% by 2030 and 2050 respectively. As explained, Canada must do better, and reaching net-zero emissions between 2025-2030 would give the room to developing countries needed to limit warming to 1.5°C. If Canada adopts the global average and developing nations fail to decarbonize as quickly, global emissions will exceed those allowed under a 1.5°C pathway and lead us to unacceptably high levels of climate disruption. Even 1.5°C would still lock in dangerous climate impacts, but is considered far less dangerous than if warming reaches or exceeds 2°C. Without negative emissions technologies and using the “safer” 420 Gt global carbon budget, Canada will need to reduce emissions by:

  • 32% per year starting in 2020 to remain within our allowable emissions to limit warming to 1.5°C based on a per capita allocation
  • 11% per year starting in 2020 to remain within our allowable emissions to keep warming below 2°C based on a per capita allocation

It is important to stress that every year we do not reduce emissions by these quantities, steeper cuts will be needed in following years to remain within our remaining allotted emissions. Furthermore, the faster Canada and the world decarbonizes, the larger the margin of error is for warming from low probability but high risk climate system feedbacks — such as permafrost thawing and weakening of the carbon-cycle. Also, the more emissions Canada can reduce domestically, the more can be left for international development where it’s needed most, as well as room for unforeseen political intransigence like when other nations refuse to do their part (e.g. USA withdrawal from Paris Agreement).

How do we achieve net-zero emissions between 2025 and 2030?

For us to achieve this ambitious objective, the government must acknowledge the true state of emergency we are in and commence nothing less than a rapid economic and social mobilization to restructure the entire economy on a scale not seen since the home front war effort during World War 2. Incremental reforms will not achieve the annual cuts in emissions needed to stay below 2°C, let alone limiting it to the far less dangerous 1.5°C temperature rise.

[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2018). Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. Ch 2. p.108.

[2] Chancel, L. & Piketty, T. (2015). Carbon and inequality: from Kyoto to Paris.

[3] Matthews, H. D. (2015). Quantifying historical carbon and climate debts among nations, 6(1), 60–64.

[4] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2018). Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C. Ch 2. p 96.

[5] Ibid. p.96.

[6] Ibid. p.107.

[7] Office of the Auditor General of Canada (2018). Perspectives on Climate Change Action in Canada. Exhibit 11—Canada’s actual and projected greenhouse gas emissions and emission reduction targets.