This is the text of remarks I delivered at the 2030 in Focus: Getting the Next Decade Right on Net-Zero, hosted by the Canadian Climate Institute and Canada’s Net-Zero Advisory Body.
“Are you optimistic?”
As a climate scientist, I hear that question almost every day. I hear it from students, family, friends, people in line at the coffee shop, definitely from the media.
People are looking for hope. As extreme climate events have ravaged North America and the world over the past few years, climate change is hitting home. Yet our responses to climate change seem woefully inadequate. So people naturally look to scientists, folks who focus on the big picture, for answers and for optimism.
This is so widespread that when I was first asked to give today’s talk, the original, placeholder title I was given was “The scientific case for optimism.” I changed it to “The scientific case for courage.”
Don’t get me wrong – I am optimistic about climate action. Granted, I do happen to be a generally optimistic person.
I changed the title because successfully addressing climate change is not about optimism or pessimism, whether of climate experts and anyone in society. It is about courage.
The planet is warming faster than at any point in the history of human civilization. The planet will continue doing so until we stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. To do that, we need the courage to uproot old systems. We need the guts to take a new path.
To show what this means for climate policy, especially for climate policy here in Canada, I am going to do something courageous: I am going to show you a graph.
This is global carbon dioxide emissions over time, from fossil fuel burning, land use change, and cement (grey line, see graph below). Using data from the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (note: Working Group 1 Table 5.8), I have calculated an emissions trajectory, which gives us a two-thirds chance of avoiding 4°C of warming (note: green line). For comparison, I added a similar analysis but for 3°C of warming (blue line).
Again, this is global data, however if I were to show you a graph for Canada’s fair share, the numbers would be different but the shape would be very similar.
Long before I went to graduate school to study atmosphere and ocean science, I considered becoming a ski instructor. To use a skiing analogy, these are beginner and intermediate slopes. They are more manageable than steeper slopes. Yet they are not good enough. We cannot stick to the “bunny slopes” if we want to avoid increasingly dangerous impacts of climate change.
For a good chance of avoiding 2°C of warming (see below), the upper limit in the Paris Agreement, we need to go down a black diamond, the symbol for an advanced ski slope.
To avoid 1.5°C of warming (see below), the lower limit in the Paris Climate Agreement, we are looking at a very steep “experts only” double black diamond. This slope is so steep that it might be better classified as one of those risky yellow diamond runs they used to have at Red Mountain outside Rossland, British Columbia. Or there would be a warning to “ski at your own risk” and that the “area is not patrolled.”
If we delay action, all of these slopes get steeper. Wait just a couple more years, and the 1.5°C slope gets so steep, that it becomes impossible or too dangerous to navigate. The ski patrol will put up a fence and close the run entirely.
Here is the good news. Experts will tell you – experts in skiing, I mean – that the foundational tools and skills needed to ski the easier slopes and the advanced slopes are the same. It is the same equipment, the same body position, the same weight transfer as you head into a turn.
Graduating from the intermediate slopes to the black and double black diamonds comes down to one thing.
You need the guts to be more decisive and more precise. When there is an opportunity to turn your skis, a well-placed bump, a divot in the slope, you have to take it, and you have to do so with force.
Yes, the slope looks scary. If you can trust your abilities, and trust your equipment, it is surprisingly easy to get down safely. Trust me: I am fortunate enough to have been skiing for even longer than I have been studying climate science.
On climate policy in Canada, right now, we are at the top of the mountain choosing what slope to take. The longer we wait, the more the snow melts. We already have the foundational policy tools. This includes the carbon pricing system, the core of climate policy in Canada. It also includes regulations, infrastructure programs, and targeted investments.
Thus far, we are applying them in a manner that will get us down a beginner or intermediate slope. We need the courage to apply them with more intention, more precision, and more confidence.
Last year, the Net-Zero Advisory Body developed a series of values and principles based on surveys of existing expertise on the pathways to net-zero emissions. Since then, we have used these ten values and principles to frame all of our work and all of our advice to the government.
Each of the ten values and principles are important. There are two in particular that I want to highlight, as they can guide us on the transition from the incremental actions that get us down the bunny slopes to the transformative actions that get us down the black diamonds.
The first principle is to acknowledge that there is more certainty than uncertainty. In other words, there is already a clear consensus among experts about the broad structure of a net-zero world. Here are some examples:
Demand for oil will be lower. Electricity will be generated by net-zero sources, including wind, solar, and hydro. Passenger transportation will be electric. Heavy duty transportation will be a mix of electricity, hydrogen, and biofuels. Heating and cooling will be mostly electric, with exceptions for some communities. Industrial processes will be mostly electric, with some role for hydrogen.
Carbon removal techniques, including direct air capture and natural climate solutions, will counter those remaining emissions that cannot be eliminated, like emissions from some industrial processes and some agricultural sources.
The second principle is to beware of dead ends.
When we focus only on incremental emissions reductions or near-term goals, rather than the transformational actions and long-term goals, we can end up on the wrong path. There are actions that will reduce emissions by 10% in the near term but are incompatible with eliminating emissions in the long term. Those actions risk locking us in to a system or technology that will eventually need to be replaced, often at great cost to all taxpayers, and to workers.
An example is the enormous effort to blend ethanol into gasoline for passenger vehicles over the past twenty to thirty years. This was about achieving marginal emissions reductions. It is quite obviously incompatible with the long-term solution of shifting to electric passenger vehicles. Biofuels will have a role in the future – but not for passenger vehicles.
The risk is that if we go too far down the bunny slope, we will miss the turnoff to the black diamond.
These two principles about certainty and dead ends can help us make courageous choices. We already have the carbon price, a vital foundation of climate policy. It is the equivalent of making sure your weight is over the balls of your feet as you go downhill. A carbon price sends a signal across the economy as to what we value.
The certainty about the broad strokes of a net-zero world allows us to go further. We can reverse engineer more targeted sectoral policies, regulations, and investment aimed at eliminating emissions in the long term. It also allows us to avoid dead ends that pricing alone may accidentally encourage.
Here is an example of an ongoing policy process that follows this logic. The federal government is working on a cap for emissions from the oil and gas sector. Many in the sector are arguing this is unfair. Why target one sector?
First, let’s be clear. Despite what you may read on the opinion pages of some of our national newspapers, the sector is not being uniquely targeted. Other sectors also have specific policies which will force emissions reductions. For example, there is the zero emissions vehicle mandate for 2035.
A more honest question is – why use a cap? Drawing on those principles, the Net-Zero Advisory Body and Canadian Climate Institute argue the following in an article available on our respective websites.
Oil and gas emissions rose 20% since 2005, while emissions from most other sectors declined. Without a cap on emissions, there is a risk of further investment in carbon-intensive projects that will lock in future emissions and be incompatible with the expected long-term decline in oil demand in a net-zero world. In other words, without a cap, there is a risk of missing the turnoff to the black diamond, or making that turn more costly for taxpayers.
I recognize that these two principles raise the prospect of industrial policy or industrial strategy, words we are not supposed to say in Canadian policy circles. Well, guess what? Industrial policy does not scare our neighbours to the south.
For years, the United States has been unable to adopt the approach recommended by academic economists – a carbon price. Instead, the Biden Administration ditched its skis, and grabbed a snowboard. The Inflation Reduction Act is investing $369 billion US on technologies and sectors that experts say will be the backbone of a net-zero world: renewable electricity generation, electric vehicles, electric home heating, hydrogen, etc. These policies have broad bipartisan support, even if the overall act does not.
Expansion of this kind of targeted policy and spending is the next step for Canada. To that end, the Net-Zero Advisory Body is currently evaluating sectors where Canada has specific opportunities to build domestic industries that contribute to eliminating emissions, while being competitive in a net-zero world. These may include industries like electric vehicle manufacturing, forestry, and others.
**I will close with an example of using these principles to build courage. Last year, we at the Advisory Body looked at pathways to net-zero for the buildings sector. Every person we consulted told us that to get down the black diamond slope, the use of fossil fuels in building heating and cooling needs to end. Buildings last a long time. If we delay action, we again risk locking in future emissions, creating more dead ends.
Given that, here is a targeted policy idea that may sound radical. That is why you have an outside advisory body: to make suggestions that others on the inside might not.
Let’s create the industry. Provide financial incentives and targeted training programs to expand the use of energy efficient materials and electric heat pumps, and to build a robust network of small businesses that can do the installation and maintenance. At the same time, set a date, I’d argue 2035, to ban the sale of fossil fuel heating and cooling equipment, allowing exceptions for Indigenous and remote communities with unique circumstances. We are applying similar tools for passenger vehicles. Let’s do it for how we heat and cool our homes.
I imagine what some of you are thinking. Too aggressive. But remember, we need to get down the black diamond, not the bunny slope.**
My point is that we have the tools to get on a path towards net-zero emissions, just as the intermediate skier has the tools to get safely down an advanced run.
The next few years is about mustering up the courage to use those tools.
** This material was omitted from the live speech due to time constraints.