Much like the terms carbon-neutral, renewable energy, or sustainability, ‘net-zero’ has become a key word in current discourse about climate change and our environment. It’s mentioned in the news, at global conferences, and in government policies. A basic definition of net-zero is the slowing or stopping of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) – one of the main contributors to the warming of our planet.  

But is net-zero just another popular phrase? What targets do we need, in Canada and around the world, to truly achieve it? In this two-part series, we delve deeper into net-zero, and why it’s become such a big player in the fight against climate change. 

Targeting emissions 

When scientists or politicians say net-zero, they usually mean net-zero emissions – of the harmful, planet-warming greenhouse gasses that stay trapped in our atmosphere. It’s understandable that this has become a main sticking point in climate change efforts, since GHG emissions were one of the first widely understood components of climate change.  

However, it’s important to note that net-zero doesn’t necessarily mean eliminating GHGs. Rather, it suggests that remaining emissions will be offset by climate change mitigation measures, like shifting to solar power or electricity in some industries, or protecting carbon sinks (a resource that absorbs more carbon than it emits, such as a forest).  

Knowing this, a natural question may arise: why not just aim for zero? While that’s fair, experts have pointed out that cutting emissions completely in some sectors, such as for the production of cement or steel, isn’t possible in the popular 2050 timeline. In those situations, shifting to alternatives will likely take place over a longer period of time.   

The race to zero 

Since net-zero has become such a widespread topic, many nations or groups have made it a goal, though it’s evident that ‘zero’ – and the timeline to get there – can mean different things. The United Nations, for example, describes the goal as bringing emissions “as close to zero as possible.” Some G7 countries, including Canada, have created their own plans to reach net-zero, or reduce emissions significantly in the coming decades. 

Canada has set the goal for net-zero emissions by 2050; in the 2015 Paris Agreement, they pledged to reduce emissions by 40-45% (from 2005 levels) by 2030. Although the larger goal is for 2050, the government’s plans indicate immediate efforts are more poised to address the Paris Agreement stipulation: 

The Minister of Environment and Climate Change will establish the country’s 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan by the end of March 2022. The plan will be informed by consultations with provinces, territories, Indigenous Peoples, the Net-Zero Advisory Body, and interested Canadians on what is needed to reach Canada’s more ambitious climate target of 40-45% emissions reductions by 2030. 

Despite these steps, a global consortium that maintains a Climate Action Tracker rates Canada’s overall climate change mitigation plans as “highly insufficient”, based on domestic and international emissions targets, climate-related financing, and so on. We’ll explore this more in our second piece in the series, on net-zero and the circular economy.  

How soon can we get there? 

Canada didn’t pick 2050 as its timeline for net-zero out of nowhere. Other G7 countries and climate advocates are also aiming for that year, given the common understanding that it’s what will be needed to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius.  

As was made clear at the recent COP26 meetings in Scotland, aggressive efforts are needed from players around the world in order to meet these targets. From innovation across all industries to fostering and protecting natural environments, hitting net-zero – and keeping promises made – is going to require a multifaceted approach.  

In our next piece, we’ll look at the circular economy, Canada’s unique position when it comes to achieving net-zero, and how innovation will play an important role going forward.