What does Canada’s journey to net zero look like?

Four members of Canada’s Net Zero Advisory Body — from an economist to a scientist — discuss the best pathways to reaching Canada’s aggressive climate targets 

  • Published Mar 28, 2023
  • Updated Sep 27
  • 1,734 words
  • 7 minutes
Catherine Abreu, founder and executive director of Destination Zero, is one of 14 advisors within Canada’s Net-Zero Advisory Body. (Photo: Daniel Arian/Can Geo)
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Our climate is changing — and it’s happening faster than predicted. Unprecedented heatwaves, extreme weather, a rise in global sea levels and decline in agricultural yields are just some of the many impacts of a warming planet.

Already, the world is 1.1 C hotter than it was in the pre-industrial era. As scientists have warned, there will continue to be catastrophic consequences without deep, rapid cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s why Canada has set an aggressive climate target: meeting its Paris Agreement goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 45 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 and committing to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. To help navigate the pathways towards net zero, Canada’s Net Zero Advisory Body (NZAB) — a group dedicated to providing independent advice to the federal government on targets and emissions reduction plans — was established under the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act.

Canadian Geographic spoke with four of NZAB’s members about what they believe are the most plausible solutions to tackling the climate crisis, how net zero can be achieved and what the responsibilities of government, industry and individual Canadians are in reaching these goals. 

What will it take for Canada to meet its net zero-by-2050 target?

There’s no silver bullet for solving climate change, says Simon Donner, climate scientist, professor at the University of British Columbia and member of the Net Zero Advisory Body. “This [situation] really is like a silver buckshot, we need to do a lot of different things.”

In the advisory body’s first publication in June 2021, the group identified 10 values and principles they believe should guide Canada to achieve net zero by 2050. Among the principles the body outlined, one is acknowledging there is more certainty than uncertainty in the journey to reach net zero. “What a net zero world looks like, in broad strokes, is kind of already well understood,” Donner says. “We know that passenger vehicles are going to be electric and home heating is going to be some mix of electricity from heat pumps, district energy systems, things like that.”

For NZAB member Sarah Houde, CEO of Propulsion Québec — an organization focused on accelerating the development of Quebec’s electric transportation ecosystem — the focus on transportation is especially important. In Propulsion Québec’s latest report, it recommends a reduce, transfer and improve approach for governments: reduce the number of kilometres that people need to travel, encourage households to transfer to more collective or active modes of transportation and improve the number of electrification projects and the technology of the vehicles themselves.

Since the most likely net zero pathways prioritize already-available solutions such as these ones, Donner says, it’s up to governments to make effective policy decisions. “If you know where you want to go, it’s a lot easier to start to figure out which pathways will get us there,” he explains, adding that it is now a matter of how hard we push towards these goals.

“We have the right equipment, we have the skill set, but we’re only applying it to get down a bunny slope,” he says. “We need to do things more aggressively to get down the double black diamond.”

Is Canada en route to achieving our net zero goal? Are governments and industries doing enough to ensure we hit our targets?

It’s not an easy task for Canada to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, but we’re not doing it by ourselves, says Catherine Abreu, NZAB member and founder and executive director of Destination Zero — an organization focused on accelerating the global transition away from fossil fuel dependence. 

Almost every other country on Earth has made similar net zero commitments under the Paris Agreement, Catherine says. “So when we’re struggling in Canada to think about how we decarbonize our transportation system, we can take a look at other jurisdictions that have made commitments to banning internal combustion engines by 2030 or 2035 and see how they’re changing their public transportation systems.”

In terms of Canada’s climate action so far, Catherine points to one area in particular where there must be improvements. 

“It’s really clear that if we’re going to meet our climate commitments, one of the biggest things standing in our way is our ongoing production and use of fossil fuels,” she says, explaining how coal, oil and gas are cumulatively responsible for over 80 per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions in the last ten years. “Eliminating the use and the production of those fossil fuels is the key to unlocking climate progress.”

Above all, beware of dead ends in the pursuit of net zero, warns Donner. For example, there has been a push for the past 25 years to blend ethanol into gasoline, which can achieve a marginal emissions reduction. “But it’s a dead end if we know vehicles are going to be switching to electric,” he says.

“So always ask, is this a choice that will have enough of a future to go all the way to 100 per cent [emissions reductions]?” he says. “If it doesn’t, should we be doing something else? Because it’s only going to make the job of getting the net zero harder.”


What are some other challenges to achieving net zero in Canada? 

Ensuring our infrastructure can handle the transition to cleaner energy systems may present a big challenge, says NZAB member John Wright, former president of SaskPower and former deputy minister of Health and deputy minister of Finance for the Government of Saskatchewan.

If Canada is to meet the rising demand for electricity, such as electric vehicles or electric heat pumps, we must improve our power generation and distribution systems, he says. Alongside this, we must have the workforce required to install and maintain these systems. 

As an economist, Wright also sees the United States’ Inflation Reduction Act as a massive challenge for Canada. As the act provides enormous financial credits, grants, and loans for clean technologies, Canadian governments must catch up and offer similar commitments to ensure investors and project developers don’t take their business south.

No matter the pathway toward net zero, it’s important governments don’t try to use a “shotgun approach,” John adds. 

“There’s going to be a lot of financial decisions that are going to be required by governments,” he says, adding that there may be an impulse to throw money at whatever problem materializes. “We need to be very thoughtful. I think we need to take taxpayer dollars and put them in the form of an industrial strategy, which is one of the things the Net Zero Advisory Body is advocating.”

How important is it to nurture the relationships required for cooperation and transformational change?

There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to curbing climate pollution, Wright and Donner say, as a unilateral approach fails to consider the individual needs of different regions, provinces and territories. In many parts of the country, jobs and the economy are closely connected to greenhouse gas-intensive activities. 

“It’s important that the provinces and the federal government work together. These regional roundtables are important,” Wright says. “I know two provinces aren’t participating right at the moment, but we must listen to each other, work together and, of course, work with municipalities and First Nations, as well. I consider that very, very important.”

As Canada functions under a loose federalist system, it cannot force provinces to make certain decisions, Donner adds. “So we need all the different provinces to see the benefits of these actions. They don’t necessarily always agree, and that’s a huge challenge for the country.” 

Developing new electricity generation also requires nurturing relationships with Indigenous peoples, he adds. Having meaningful consultations about how projects will affect their communities is vital. 

“[Governments] can’t have a plan and then come up and ask an Indigenous community later on, ‘Hey, how do you feel about this?’” Donner says. “It needs to be co-developed, there needs to be a benefit for everybody or none of this is going to work.”

Are you optimistic Canada will reach our targets?

One thing is certain, Houde says: we are fully equipped to meet our goals but we have a lot of work ahead of us. “In my opinion, we need to move as fast as possible. 2050 seems far away, but it’s not.”

Despite Canada’s ambitious net zero target and the need to take more aggressive action, all four NZAB members shared a similar sense of optimism for the future and our country’s ability to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

“I think that optimism comes from seeing how much things have changed in 20 years of working on this subject,” Donner says, pointing to how renewable, zero carbon forms of electricity are now cheaper than fossil fuel generation. “When I was a graduate student, I wouldn’t have believed it if you told me that was going to be true.”

Moving forward, everyone has a role to play in the pursuit of net zero, says Abreu. Though governments and industries have the most power, individual Canadians can also make real change happen

Alongside shrinking your carbon footprint — through the ways you commute to the ways you heat your home — Abreu says talking with people about climate change is one of the biggest hurdles.

“Study after study tells us that people don’t change their minds just because they’re being told the right scientific facts. People change their minds when people who they care about tell them this is an issue they care about,” she says. “The most important thing we can do as individuals is build community around caring about climate change.”

With community, of course, comes hopes. 

“I am asked what gives me hope when it comes to climate change in almost every interview,” Abreu says. “And often what I say is that I’m not as interested in hope as I am in action. Hope is important for inspiring us and making us feel like we can get the job done. But there are days when I feel hopeless and I still get up and do this work. That is what gives me the courage to continue.”


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