Sometimes a report can change the conversation. In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark special report showing that the world has only a short window to sharply reduce emissions if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The report’s implications were stark: we have to cut emissions almost in half by 2030, and then reach net zero — meaning any increases in carbon emissions are offset by decreases elsewhere — by 2050.
Soon after, the dominoes began to fall. Countries, states, cities and companies all began to announce net-zero targets. In Canada, the federal Liberal Party pledged in its successful 2019 re-election campaign to hit net-zero emissions by 2050. Corporations, including major oil and gas players, have done the same.
The commitment to net zero in 2050 is critical, but that same IPCC report also tells us that we must pay equal attention to the cumulative amount of greenhouse gas pollution we emit along the way. And any examination of that cumulative emissions picture leads to an inescapable conclusion: we need to vastly increase our efforts to remove carbon from the atmosphere, through natural and technological methods. Canada is well positioned to be a leader in this developing field.
A budget for carbon
The total amount we can emit before risking dangerous levels of planetary warming is called the global carbon budget. Calculating the carbon budget is complicated, because established global climate models disagree (see figure 1). But they almost all predict that global emissions are likely to warm the planet past the IPCC’s red line of 1.5° C in the coming decades, regardless of efforts at mitigation. That means we will have to remove enough carbon from the atmosphere to cool the Earth back down below that 1.5° C threshold by 2100.
Given the uncertainty in climate models, Canadian policy-makers would be wise to take the most conservative estimate of the carbon budget shown in figure 1, which limits the world to emitting just under 500 gigatonnes (Gt). Whatever amount we emit past that limit, we have to clean it up.
What’s Canada’s tab?
Now the hardest part: determining Canada’s fair share of the global budget. Experts have argued that our share should be based on our population or our disproportionately high historical emissions. These approaches make sense in theory, but they require such steep cuts by 2030 — reductions between 96 and 140 percent — that it’s hard to imagine a credible path to achieving them.
A less fair but more realistic approach could be to base Canada’s carbon budget on our current share of global emissions,1.6 percent. This implies that Canada can emit (on average) just 210 megatonnes (Mt) of CO2 equivalent per year between now and 2050 — a significant reduction from the 729 Mt we emitted in 2018.
We need a radical solution, so here’s a proposal: Let’s commit to that 1.6 percent emissions budget alongside an effort to massively scale up atmospheric carbon removal, now.
This gives us a credible path to mobilize Canadians. And by deploying the technologies we need to reduce our own emissions, we will bring down the costs of clean energy, carbon capture and other tools that we can provide to developing countries to help them grow in a cleaner way than we did. Providing financial assistance to these countries for technology adoption could also help us offset our over-consumption of the carbon pie.
Figure 2 presents a pathway that highlights the scale of the challenge: the blue line shows gross annual emissions declining by 3.5 percent in this decade, 5 percent from 2030 to 2035 and then 10 percent through 2050. Those percentages may sound reasonable, but no major industrialized country has reduced emissions by more than 3.5 percent in this century. And even this ambitious plan still leads us to release nearly double our remaining emissions budget. That’s where carbon removal (the red line) comes in.
Mind the gap
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We already know that carbon removal will be critical to offset the last 10 to 15 percent of emissions that will be prohibitively expensive to eliminate directly. But, in addition, we need to get billions of tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere by 2050. Indeed, the pathway in figure 2 implies a need to remove more than 5 Gt of carbon by 2050.
There are natural carbon-removal solutions — planting trees, restoring wetlands, regenerative agriculture — that can pull out 1 to 1.5 Gt if we do everything right. To tackle the rest, we will need massive deployment of technological solutions. While there are a range of options, one with particular promise is direct air capture (DAC). DAC has already been deployed commercially and is beginning to scale up. It can remove a tonne of carbon at a cost of between US$200 and US$250 and then store it underground. And as we begin to expand its use, there’s good reason to believe costs could go as low as US$125 per tonne.
To be clear, this technology is not a panacea. It does not replace the urgent need to reduce our emissions. Scaling up DAC also presents big challenges. We would need to build hundreds, if not thousands, of DAC plants to meet our targets, plants that require massive amounts of energy to operate. We’d need to find a way to finance all of this new carbon-capture infrastructure.
But this technology can play a vital role in the effort to stay within our carbon budget. And Canada can help propel the DAC industry forward, creating massive economic opportunities in the process. Every new 1 Mt plant would create 3,500 jobs along the supply chain.
We already have one of the leading global DAC companies, located in Squamish, BC. It recently signed a deal to build the largest DAC plant in the world (in Texas, where policy is currently more conducive). We also have massive underground carbon storage capacity — mostly in Alberta and Saskatchewan — plus a burgeoning clean-tech sector. By accelerating policy support for DAC, Canada could gain first-mover advantage as a global exporter of the technology. And in expanding the use of DAC, we could also help the rest of the world stay within the global carbon budget.
Implications for Canadian policy
First, the federal government should aim higher than net zero. It should commit to a net-zero pathway that is consistent with the scientific consensus on avoiding the worst effects of climate change. This means accepting that we’ll likely overshoot our emissions targets, and that we’ll need to remove large amounts of carbon under almost any scenario. Whichever pathway is chosen should be based on scientific evidence.
Second, we need to quickly scale up carbon-removal technology. Bringing our emissions-reduction technologies to scale — starting with DAC, while also supporting other promising ideas like enhanced weathering — requires public support, like a transferable tax credit similar to the 45Q tax credit offered in the US. The federal government should also directly procure DAC plants in a transparent fashion such as a reverse auction. Doing so would provide valuable information about the evolving costs for carbon removal, while helping the feds achieve their own emissions goals.
Third, carbon prices should continue to increase steadily each year, helping to drive emissions reductions — and incentivizing companies to push the costs of DAC and other carbon-removal technologies below the carbon price. Once the cost of removing carbon from the air falls below the price of emissions, deployment of the technology will accelerate.
If we start now, Canada can stay within its carbon budget and become a major player in what will likely be a growing global carbon-removal industry. Let’s get going.