Net-Zero may be the most ill-conceived national project Canada has ever pursued

Costs for Canadians will far outweigh any benefits to the planet

By Tristan Hopper, National Post, August 21, 2023

If everything goes according to the wishes of Canada’s net-zero planners, in just 27 years this country won’t emit a single stray molecule of carbon dioxide.

Canada burns an average 100 million litres of gasoline every single day; that’s about 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth. It burns another 49 million daily litres of diesel. The country has almost 25 million registered vehicles powered by internal combustion engines.

A quick look at any flight tracker reveals as many as 100 wide-body aircraft are cruising over Canadian skies at any given time, carrying a small town’s worth of air passengers. Add it all up, and Canada emits about 21,000 kilograms of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every second.

And by 2050, the plan is to delete every single gram of that total. If something can’t be done with alternative energy or avoided entirely, the carbon it produces will be actively sucked out of the air. The Canada of 2050 would emit no more greenhouse gas emissions than if the country was an uninhabited, pre-industrial wilderness.

Getting to this point would be the most expensive single thing that Canada has ever done. Even the most optimistic estimates of net zero put its price tag at several times the inflation-adjusted cost of fighting the world wars.

But even according to the most fervent boosters of Net Zero, it’s not entirely clear what this will accomplish. Oceans of oil will go unburned and mountains of greenhouse gases will go un-emitted, but under current conditions any planetary damage it mitigates could wind up representing only a fraction of the economic cost it will incur.

Net Zero — touted as an unquestionable imperative for a livable future — could wind up being one of the most fantasist things ever endorsed by a Canadian federal government.

“Zero Net emissions is unlikely to be feasible with today’s technologies,” the U.S. economist William Nordhaus said in his 2018 acceptance lecture for the Nobel Prize in Economics.

The award had been widely viewed as an endorsement of carbon taxes. Nordhaus had long been a prominent advocate for the idea of a global carbon levy. The world’s most powerful nations should get together, figure out how much damage was being wrought by human-caused emissions, and then price fossil fuels accordingly; say, $25 per ton of CO2. And if a country doesn’t want to join this “carbon club,” they get sanctioned to oblivion.

But when Nordhaus showed up in Stockholm to pick up his medal, he took a moment to call out the idea of “zero net” policies as a particularly inadvisable solution to the crisis of climate change.

Completely banishing emissions from human activity was not “realistic” or “responsible,” and relied entirely on “miraculous technological breakthroughs” that don’t exist, said the economist.

Net Zero depends on technological breakthroughs that don’t exist

Fittingly, Canada’s plan for net zero does indeed lean heavily on miraculous technological breakthroughs that don’t exist.

Ottawa’s rough blueprint for net zero is a 2021 report published by the federally funded Canadian Institute for Climate Choices. The report says that at least one third of Canada’s net-zero plan would rely on what it calls “wild cards”: Technologies that don’t currently exist at any kind of reasonable scale (such as direct air capture or liquid biofuels), but that once invented would “play a significant and important role.”

The timeline is extraordinarily short. A net-zero electrical grid by 2035, and then net-zero everything by 2050. For context, we are as many years away from 2050 as we are from the year 1996; right around the time Canada signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the world’s first-ever global commitment to lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada’s goals under Kyoto were much more modest than anything proposed under Net Zero; we were supposed to reduce emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels. Even then, instead of reducing emissions, Canada saw them rise by more than 30 per cent.

There’s been no official accounting of what Net Zero might cost, but a 2021 report by RBC puts the price tag at about $2-trillion between now and 2050. Or at least $60-billion per year. That’s roughly what it cost Canada for each year it fought the Second World War. Or, it’s akin to seizing the entire GDP of Manitoba each year and directing it exclusively towards decarbonization.

And none of that accounts for the inevitable economic damage incurred by progressively cutting off Canadians’ access to cheap energy.

In a May report, the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum ran the numbers on what would happen if Canada prematurely shut down its oil and gas sector in a bid to fast-track net zero.

By 2050, it will have cost Canada $100-billion in forgone earnings. ”This essentially amounts to a deep recession without a recovery ever materializing,” read a conclusion, adding that most of the damage would be concentrated in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The Public Policy Forum is not an opponent of aggressive action on climate change; “There is no way of doing nothing in the face of the climate emergency,” the group said in May. They merely suggested that policymakers might want to figure out which of their net-zero proposals would be least likely to make the country poorer.

Ottawa has not provided cost-benefit analysis

The federal government has provided remarkably little explanation as to why this should all be done.

Even if Canadians accept that action is needed on climate change (and they do), there is no cost-benefit analysis weighing the cost of Net Zero against the planetary damage that Canada’s emissions would otherwise impose under a “do nothing” scenario.

Ottawa also doesn’t appear to have considered whether an all-out drive to completely extinguish domestic emissions is the most efficient way that Canadian resources could be mobilized to keep carbon out of the world’s atmosphere.

Carbon mitigation becomes exponentially more expensive the more it approaches net zero. Shutting down coal plants and planting a few more trees is easy, but as Canada chases down every last jet plane and oil furnace, costs would rise considerably as those final tonnes are stamped out via carbon capture — a process that currently costs upwards of $1,000 per tonne.

In a recent column for the National Post, writer Adam Pankratz wrote that if the goal was simply to mitigate as many planetary emissions as possible, Canada’s best short-term course of action might be to feverishly export its natural-gas reserves in order to supplant far-dirtier coal power plants in Europe and Asia.

But government literature all takes Net Zero as inevitable. The only question is how quickly to get there.

Net Zero “is essential to keeping the world safe and livable for our kids and grandkids,” reads the official Government of Canada literature on Net-Zero plans. The newly formed Net-Zero Advisory Body similarly takes it for granted that “Canada must remain at the forefront of the net-zero movement.”

Carbon emissions already costly?

Whenever the costs of climate mitigation have been brought up in the House of Commons, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has usually shot back that climate change is already costing Canadians “tens of billions,” or that “the future of humanity on this planet” is in the balance.

Canada’s official “social cost of carbon,” according to the Ministry of Environment, currently stands at $261. In other words, every tonne of carbon emitted can be expected to do about $261 in damage to global agricultural productivity, human health, increased flood risk, etc.

The math for this figure is taken from a recent draft report by the U.S. EPA that more than quadrupled prior estimates. As recently as a few months ago, U.S. figures on the “social cost” of carbon were as low as $69 per tonne (US$51).

So, with Canadian national emissions hitting 670 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2021, the federal government’s official policy is that Canadian emissions are single-handedly causing $175-billion in annual damage to humanity and the planet generally.

And when you consider that Canadian emissions form just 1.6 per cent of the global total, the inference is that climate change is causing $10.9-trillion in planetary damage every year — about eight per cent of global GDP.

At the lower $69/tonne figure, however, it comes to just $46-billion. To do $2-trillion damage at that rate, Canada would need to run its economy at current levels of emissions for the next 43 years. And it would take even longer when you consider that emissions are already trending downwards, with the Canadian Energy Regulator already forecasting that, in the absence of any new policy, national emissions are set to drop 14 per cent by 2050.

Canada’s share of Net Zero is minuscule

A perennial criticism of action on climate change is that Canada’s emissions are such a small share of the global total that their elimination would make almost no difference to rising temperatures.

To this, a popular counterpoint is to compare carbon mitigation to military spending. Canada has never fought in a foreign war it could have won on its own, and had to be content with attaining victory as part of a much larger alliance.

In the words of the Public Policy Forum, “Imagine telling our (Second World War) Allies that Canadian soldiers constituted such a small percentage of the overall effort that it made no sense to send them to the front.”

The difference might be that Canada is planning to go all-in on an invasion of Normandy without an entirely clear picture of whether the rest of the allies plan to show up.

Most other nations not gung-ho on Net Zero

One recent analysis in the journal Science found that while much of the world has made gestures towards Net Zero, 90 per cent of the world’s Net-Zero plans are unlikely to ever happen. And China, which is well on track to become the world’s largest emitter, doesn’t even seem to be trying.

“If Canada alone goes to Net Zero in 2050 and nothing else changes, global CO2 emissions drop 1.6 per cent, atmospheric CO2 levels barely change and temperatures keep going up as much as they otherwise would,” Ross McKitrick, a University of Guelph economics professor and critic of net zero, wrote in an email to the National Post.

If the rest of the 38 developed countries in the OECD also joined Canada in achieving Net Zero by 2050, then McKitrick said the figures are better: 30 to 40 per cent of global emissions are mitigated — depending on how much of that net-zero total is attained by rich countries offshoring their industrial activity to Asia.

The typical criticism of Net Zero is that it’s needlessly absolutist. It’s not a philosophy that asks for carbon emissions to be lowered to sustainable levels. Or even one that looks to balance the costs of emissions against their benefits.

Even 1867 Canada couldn’t meet Net Zero goals

The goal is right there in the name: No net emissions whatsoever. It’s such an ambitious milestone that Net Zero can’t even be claimed by the Canadians of 1867: The small quantities of coal used for heating and railways at the country’s founding would have disqualified it.

Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish environmentalist who is now a vocal critic of carbon mitigation strategies, has compared net zero to a traffic policy that attempts to stop all motor vehicle deaths. If that’s the only end goal, Lomborg wrote in 2020, a good solution “would be to set the national speed limit to three miles per hour.”

But if Canada’s net-zero plans contain some holes, the easiest defence against them might be that — like most of the world’s other net-zero plans — they’re probably not going to happen.

One of the easiest ways to cut carbon is to plant trees. And yet, despite the Trudeau government coming to office on a pledge to plant two billion trees, only 110 million had been planted as of earlier this month.

The Trudeau government is not even on track for the easiest milestone of net zero; the total decarbonization of the electrical grid by 2035.

Canada is already most of the way there: Sixty per cent of our electricity comes from hydroelectric dams, 15 per cent of it comes from nuclear and six per cent comes from some combination of wind, biomass or geothermal.

But that last 19 per cent can’t be shaken loose without somehow building a lot more transmission lines, hydroelectric dams, nuclear plants and carbon capture projects — very little of which are even on drawing boards, much less under construction.

And that’s setting aside the fact that electrical generation will somehow need to surge by 100 per cent in the coming years to handle all of the new fleets of electric cars Ottawa is planning for.

There are also some unexpected political hitches, with Alberta and Saskatchewan openly declaring war on this first major salvo of net zero, arguing that it’s so poorly thought-out it could feasibly leave the Prairies wracked by deadly rolling blackouts in the middle of winter. As a recent declaration by Alberta Premier Danielle Smith put it “Alberta’s government will protect Albertans from these unconstitutional federal net-zero regulations. They will not be implemented in our province.”

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