Canada’s climate actions must be greatly strengthened to reach net-zero emissions, new report

February 8, 2024

VANCOUVER — Canada faces daunting—but not insurmountable—challenges to meet its net-zero commitments, but government policies and incentives must match the severity of the issue in order to drastically reduce emissions to address climate change, a new Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, BC Office report shows.

The need to reduce emissions has been recognized for decades, yet they have continued to grow with brief respites during economic downturns, says report author David Hughes, an earth scientist and former research manager with the Geological Survey of Canada for 32 years.

Although Canada has committed to aggressive emissions reduction targets of 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and net-zero by 2050, emissions had dropped only 8.5 per cent as of 2021.A Canadian Climate Institute estimate indicates that Canada’s emissions increased 2.1 per cent in 2022, putting Canada even further from its legislated emissions reduction targets, the report notes.

“Canada’s policies must be much more aggressive in order to achieve its emissions reduction mandate,” says Hughes. “They must be greatly strengthened to have any hope of reaching net-zero.”

Canada, like many countries, has set emissions reduction targets but continues to promote—and even invest in—fossil fuels. The government approving construction of new oil and gas infrastructure, such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals, significantly increases the risk that Canada’s net-zero mandate will not be achieved, Hughes says.

He notes that despite Canada’s aggressive emissions reduction targets, oil and gas production is at an all-time high and will rise further when the government-owned Trans Mountain pipeline is completed later this year and the first of four approved LNG terminals comes on stream.

“The status quo cannot continue”, Hughes says, explaining that if Canada is to meet its 40 to 45 per cent reduction goal by 2030, the rate of emissions reduction must increase 6.6 to 7.7 times over the 2022 to 2030 period compared to the rate between 2005 and 2021.

In June 2023, the Canada Energy Regulator (CER) published “Canada’s Energy Future 2023” which contained—for the first time—projections of energy supply in scenarios that would meet Canada’s net-zero emissions reduction target by 2050. CER also provided a scenario in this report which showed that emissions would be just 16% lower than 2022 levels by 2050 with government policies in place as of March, 2023.

The CER net-zero scenarios are based on an economic analysis of current and announced government policies, technical factors and the most comprehensive knowledge-base of Canadian energy data available and illustrate the scale of the challenge to reach net-zero, Hughes explains.

 Although assumptions in the CER net-zero scenarios are optimistic in terms of declining costs and rapid technology development, they will only be achieved with significant action, Hughes says.

These assumptions include major cuts in oil and gas production (up to 75 per cent for oil and 68 per cent for gas), carbon prices of at least $400 per tonne, cuts of 33 to 41 per cent in per-capita energy consumption, a near tripling of nuclear power, a scaleup of hydrogen from essentially nothing to 11 per cent of energy consumption, a 10-fold increase in renewable energy from solar and wind, and a six-fold increase in the use of biomass.

Hughes explains that in order to offset emissions from fossil fuel and biomass use, the CER scenarios assume that carbon capture and storage will increase 34 to 39 times from current levels, that direct air carbon capture will be scaled several thousand-fold, and that the sequestration capacity of Canada’s forests—which are currently significant net emitters—will be restored.

Given the optimistic assumptions made in the CER net-zero scenarios, Hughes says even more aggressive actions will be needed for Canada to have a realistic chance of reaching its net-zero mandate. Compared to the CER net-zero projections, this means:

  • Less reliance on fossil fuels which will reduce the need for carbon capture, storage and removal to more realistic levels.
  • A greater proportion of electricity in the energy mix to compensate for reduced fossil fuel use, which will result in more renewable energy generation.
  • A greater emphasis on efficiency and reducing energy consumption at all levels.

On a per-capita basis, Canadians consume 4.9 times as much energy as the world average and emit three times world average emissions. Hughes advocates maximizing the reduction of energy demand through conservation, efficiency and behavioral change to reduce the need for costly energy production and carbon capture infrastructure.

“This should be at the forefront of government policy incentives,” he says. “Maximizing reduction of energy consumption should become a major focus of government policy in the quest to meet net-zero commitments.”

Minimizing the economic and human consequences of meeting Canada’s net-zero mandate will require early action in order to minimize the rate of change required and avoid much steeper rates of change later or missing the net-zero target altogether, Hughes explains.

“Although meeting Canada’s net-zero mandate will necessitate unprecedented change, failure to do so would be much worse,” he says.

For more information and to arrange interviews, please contact Lisa Akinyi Mayat 236-886-7646, [email protected]



Quotes from co-publishers and funders

“This report acts as an important reality check on the Canada Energy Regulator’s first-ever net-zero scenarios. We cannot continue to grow the problem—fossil fuel production—while relying on unproven technologies to reach net-zero by 2050. The CER’s significant overestimation of the role of Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage would lock in fossil fuel infrastructure, strand assets and put a truly equitable transition out of reach.

In light of Biden’s pause on Liquified Natural Gas export terminals, Canada needs a sober second thought on its massive LNG export expansion plans, which would make it impossible to reach its climate targets. The CER net-zero scenarios marked an important step in the right direction, but Canada still has a long way to go to tackle its blind spots around the future of oil and gas.”

Emily Lowan, Fossil Fuel Supply Lead for Climate Action Network Canada – Réseau action climat Canada

 “Advancing on the path to net zero will have wide-ranging implications for Canadian industry, including significant declines in oil and gas production. The analysis found in this CCPA report on the Canada Energy Regulator's net zero scenario is therefore critical in two ways. It clarifies just how significant the transition away from coal, oil, and gas needs to be; the first step for Canada is to stop increasing production. And it provides essential advice on how to improve the assumptions made in future modeling studies from the CER”
Dale Marshall, Trottier Family Foundation

 “This report shows that the challenge of meeting our national climate targets without winding down fossil fuel production is even greater than we thought. We owe it to future generations to avoid making unrealistic assumptions about techno-fixes like carbon capture. Affordable clean energy alternatives to fossil fuels are now readily available. Recent climate trends are unequivocal: we need to phase out coal, oil and gas now before the window to stabilize the climate closes.”
Jens Wieting, Senior Forest and Climate Campaigner at Sierra Club BC.