Hope is not a strategy to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. We need stronger, thoughtful and more ambitious policy right now.

By: John McNally, (c) 2021

Canada’s transition to net-zero emissions in the coming decades will be disruptive on every level of society. If this country can reach its goal, it will prove to be a feat of national ingenuity and prowess on a scale Canada has never seen. By any measure, this net-zero undertaking will be an uncertain and expensive future occurring upon a backdrop of climate disasters of escalating frequency and severity.

Problems of national interest and scale require government leadership to drive forward the solutions that are needed to protect and benefit all Canadians. This country’s leaders need to start advancing these solutions as soon as possible if Canada has any chance of reaching net-zero emissions in the next 29 years.

Canada’s policy objectives in this timeline are easy to quantify: This country needs to ensure the economy is reducing emissions at the rate needed to reach our net-zero emission target by the year 2050. That means reducing national GHG emissions, which were 730 Mt/CO2eq in 2019, by an average rate of slightly over 25Mt/CO2eq annually. This can occur through direct mitigation or carbon offsets. However, it is worth noting that Canada has never before reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by this much in any year – and the current challenge we face as a country is achieving this level of reduction annually, every single year, for the next three decades.

Canadian GHG emissions and indexed trend emission intensity between 1990 and 2019

So what policy change is needed to get Canada there? The most important thing that governments can do to meet this goal is to ensure the ambition of our policies matches that of our targets. Canada has committed to putting many of the foundational climate policies in place already; we just need to design them effectively and ensure their ambition is large enough that we have a shot at getting to net-zero emissions. Leaders cannot pretend that will be easy, because well-designed policy is hard to make, and harder still to implement. Yet, it remains the largest and most critical lever for shifting the entire market in a cleaner direction, and there is no serious alternative that allows us to meet our targets and thrive in a net-zero future.

Canada can take some comfort in the fact that this country has serious climate policy in place today. Canada’s hard-won carbon pricing system will need to stay in place moving forward, and continue to climb in coming years if we want it to continue driving emissions reductions at needed levels. Policies beyond carbon pricing – including a zero-emissions vehicle sales mandate, spending to support dramatically scaling the supply of renewably-produced electricity, and supports to help industrial heavy emitters decrease their greenhouse gases – will be also needed as complements to ensure every single sector can drive change fast enough to meet targets. In the world of public policy, governments sometimes need multiple tools to be employed alongside one another to overcome multiple challenges to meeting a single objective.

Beyond the big policy pillars like carbon pricing and electric vehicle sales mandates, governments also need to think about what might stand in the way of the success of the policies. In some cases, the barriers to progress come from a lack of clarity on important details.

For example, getting more battery-electric or hydrogen vehicles on the road is not as easy as simply buying new vehicles. Supporting technology change in our energy system requires government action at every step in the process. Governments need to think about challenges like setting technical standards for refueling systems and working with local fire departments to help understand safety protocols if a battery-filled charging depot for public buses catches fire. These steps, while seemingly small details, are often real barriers to markets driving forward change and scaling zero-emissions solutions. If governments want to enable the market to innovate to its truest potential, they need to work out the details to ensure systems are safe and secure before deployments at scale can happen.

Another barrier to Canada reaching net-zero emissions is if the country accidentally gets in its own way through its policy choices. Governments often overlook how different policies and sectors interact with one another. One example of where this interaction creates barriers to reducing emissions is through the growing unaffordability of housing: Canada’s transition to net-zero emissions will require an enormous workforce to build, install and maintain projects that reduce emissions in every community. Those workers all need somewhere to live. If housing is unaffordable, that negatively impacts their ability to live close to work, which could lead to vacancies going unfilled and projects not being built fast enough to meet targets.

Finally, achieving greater equity in society is explicitly not a barrier to meeting environmental goals – Canada can absolutely support both a cleaner and more inclusive future, if policies are well-designed. The benefits and costs of a transition to net-zero emissions need not reproduce or exacerbate the systemic inequities of today. Canada’s fight against climate change will create an enormous volume of jobs and wealth, and these gains need to be accessible to any and everyone who is impacted by climate change. Ensuring equitable access to jobs, lowering the systemic barriers to benefitting from a transition that exist today, and taking active steps to combat persistent injustices in marginalized communities can be done through smart design in our policies, informed by the needs of each community. Ensuring communities have the tools, knowledge and resources required to advocate for their needs and shape a sustainable future that works for them is a big part of this. This will require engaging with communities and empowering them to positions as equal decision-makers, so they may shape and drive their own transitions to a cleaner future.

Parliament (license, creative commons. Sourced from: https://pixabay.com/photos/ottawa-parliament-canada-government-815375/)

Now is the time for bold policy to drive forward a transition that ensures a prosperous, sustainable and inclusive future for all Canadians. To solve national problems, we need governments to lead: Only they have the resources, scale, and authority needed to solve this problem while supporting all Canadians. To do this, governments need to ensure the ambition of our policies matches that of our targets. They also need to ensure we get the details right, that we avoid getting in our own way, and that any action taken is designed to create a future where more people can benefit from this nation’s prosperity. And – most importantly – Canada needs to do all of this right now.

In matters of public policy, hope is not a strategy. Ambitious, thoughtful, effective, and immediate leadership from governments are the only serious and credible path to this country meeting its net-zero goal.