Net-zero by 2050: guiding principles to get it rightThe surest route to a safe climate puts people first

Blog - March 11, 2021 - By Isabelle Turcotte
Woman walking on path with children

Photo: iStock

The North Star of the federal government’s approach to tackling climate change is its commitment to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 as part of the global effort to secure a safe climate for generations to come. While the “what” of net-zero carbon emissions is seemingly simple, the “how” is much more complex. Infinite scenarios are compatible with reaching net-zero, but not all are compatible with keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, not all will deliver a more inclusive, resilient, and competitive economy.

In How to Get Net-Zero Right, Pembina Institute outlines four principles guiding a safe, inclusive, and effective approach to net-zero pathways, along with tools and steps to put these principles into action.

Principle 1: Put people first

Canada’s pathways to net-zero must put people first, prioritizing systemic change in the economy for the benefit of all. Truly realizing the potential of  net-zero by 2050 means designing pathways that achieve emissions reductions through transformative changes that align with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and result in benefits for all Canadians. The COVID-19 crisis has taken a huge and unequal toll on Canadians’ lives and livelihoods, making apparent the urgent need to build resilience into our communities and economy. Canadians have never been more alive to the need for systemic change. Like the pandemic, climate change won’t impact all Canadians in the same way -- some will be disproportionately impacted. Consequently, the journey to 2050 should be buttressed by a commitment to ensuring opportunities and challenges are addressed in a just and equitable manner. Training to provide access to new skills and employment opportunities is key, but to minimize polarization workers and impacted communities must be directly involved at an early stage in the development of economic diversification strategies and solutions.

Especially important is the acute need to pursue pathways to net-zero in collaboration with Indigenous Peoples. This means respecting inherent and treaty rights, acknowledging and providing restitution for past injustices, and embodying free, prior, and informed consent as set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and as supported by Indigenous leaders and communities in Canada.

Principle 2: Respect science-based carbon budgets

Pathways must be anchored in science and respect a carbon budget. Limiting global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius -  the socially, economically, politically and scientifically safe limit to global warming  - is within reach but requires carbon emissions created by human beings to decline by approximately 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050.

Global temperature rises linearly with cumulative global emissions. Scientists have calculated the maximum cumulative emissions – or carbon budget – associated with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The world has already warmed by 1.1 degrees since pre-industrial time. The carbon budget – the additional emissions that can enter the atmosphere if we wish to limit warming to 1.5C – is rapidly shrinking. A carbon budget is an essential tool to map a safe journey to 2050. A robust pathway, then, is one that stays within the limits of the scientifically determined global carbon budget, and includes appropriately ambitious time-bound emissions reduction targets to keep within the bounds of that budget.

Principle 3 - Prioritize early, deep reductions

Pathways must prioritize early, deep, sustained and technologically feasible emissions reductions in every sector. To safely limit warming, emissions need to peak as soon as possible, decline rapidly and reach a balance of human-caused sources and sinks. More emissions now means more warming later, resulting in increasingly expensive economic damage and requiring more aggressive and likely costlier action later to limit atmospheric carbon. Pathways should support increased ambition across all sectors and provinces to put global emissions on track to net-zero by 2050. This, in turn, will help position Canadian businesses to compete in a global decarbonizing economy.

Principle 4 - Define the role of carbon removal, offsets

Pathways must define and enable an appropriate role for carbon removal and offsets. The journey to net-zero is a relationship between the emissions we create, emissions we reduce directly, emissions we remove and emissions we offset. The details and balance of efforts undertaken under each category of action determine whether the journey to net-zero will really deliver deep decarbonization and maintain a safe climate. Direct emissions reductions are the most effective way to respect a carbon budget and safely limit warming. Nonetheless, as we transition to a decarbonized global economy, carbon removal and offsets have a role to play in addition to -- not as an alternative for -- direct reductions. Given the high cost, long lead time, and other potential limitations on development of carbon removal technologies, Canada needs a framework in which decisions about the development and prioritization of the use of removal technologies can be made in the context of overall economic decarbonization. As for offsets, given the considerable debate over the certainty and legitimacy of some types of offsets, establishing robust and transparent rules for ensuring the highest level of environmental integrity will be critical for Canada. The role of offsets and removal should also shift over time as new direct mitigation measures become available. Further, breaking down net-zero targets into three parts – direct reduction, carbon removal, and emissions neutralized through offset – can help create transparency and robustness in a mitigation portfolio.

We believe these four principles should guide the development of pathways that reflect the needs of all Canadians, and be supported by a variety of tools and key steps (outlined in How to Get Net-Zero Right) that will bring these principles to life.  We look forward to building on these reflections with decision-makers in government, Indigenous and local communities, and with stakeholders in business, industry and civil society who are participating in the development of pathways to 2050.

Isabelle Turcotte
Isabelle Turcotte

Isabelle Turcotte was the director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute until 2022.


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