Here's what a world of net-zero carbon emissions looks like
What does a world without extra carbon emissions look like?
World leaders — including Environment Minister Catherine McKenna — are in Poland this week as part of the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 24). It’s the most important meeting on climate change since COP 21, where the Paris Climate Agreement was reached.
That’s because at COP 24, countries are expected to provide a “work program for the implementation” of their plan from 2015, according to the United Nations.
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The overall plan calls for people around the globe to reduce their carbon emissions and make sure the Earth’s average temperature does not rise by more than 2 C.
In Canada, we’ve committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by at least 200 tonnes by 2030 – and had previously set a goal of “net emissions falling by at least 80 per cent in 2050, from 2005 levels.”
As part of their plans to achieve that goal, the European Union has gone even further, calling for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Some U.K. politicians have also called for the same.
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But a world with without extra carbon emissions would look different from our world today, experts say.
What is net-zero emissions?
“In short, it means the amount of emissions being put into the atmosphere is equal to the amount being generated,” Catherine Abreau, executive director of the Climate Action Network, told Global News.
So if there are 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide being emitted by an industry, there needs to be a group of trees that sequesters 100 tonnes of carbon dioxide.
To reach a world of net-zero emissions, there are a few things that need to be done.
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“One of the largest and fastest growing sources of emissions in Canada are in the transportation sector,” Abreau explained. “And that’s in large part because of freight transport — big trucks on the road driving products here to there.”
The transportation sector accounted for 23 per cent of Canada’s emissions in 2014, according to government data.
In the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change Canada has committed to updating vehicle emissions standards, expanding the amount of electric vehicles and updating and investing in infrastructure to shift to low-emitting transportation.
In a world with net-zero emissions “we’d be using electric cars and other electrified modes of transportation,” Abreau said.
That means a lot more electric vehicles on the road. As for transport trucks, while there are some initiatives to electrify trucks, there are other ways to reduce carbon emissions – including making trucks more aerodynamic to reduce wind resistance and streamlining how goods are transported.
The push for Canadians to drive more electric cars has already started – B.C. has promised every car sold will be zero-emission by 2040.
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High speed trains instead of airplanes
A flight from Halifax to Vancouver emits 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide — that’s about 10 per cent of the yearly emission of an average Canadian, climate policy expert Tom Green explained.
While it might be unrealistic to ask people to give up travelling, Abreau says there are alternatives for land travel.
“There are high-speed trains that are making use of electricity to get people across large distances in a short period of time,” she explained.
Transit and smarter cities
Dayna Scott, research chair in Environmental Law at York University, says having an electric vehicle isn’t enough to change the world – instead we need to have a different view on how people live their lives.
“We need to drive less. We need to consume less. So we need to build our cities and our towns differently – more compact,” Scott said.
In the Pan-Canadian Framework, the government agrees and has committed to upgrading public transit.
It also suggests building net-zero emissions structures – where the buildings produce the energy to sustain themselves.
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Adding green spaces and sequestering more carbon
To make sure we get to the net-zero emissions target, Abreau says more green spaces are needed – and Canada needs to stop deforestation.
There are other ways to pull carbon out of the air – called carbon capture technology.
That’s when you “capture any greenhouse gas emissions that result from the combustion of that bioenergy,” she said.
It can then be used in other ways – for example, a firm in Nova Scotia called Carbon Cure uses captured carbon to reinforce concrete.
Carbon capture technology is already in use – for example, Sask Power uses it when it burns coal – but Abreau warned that it’s relatively expensive.
“The further away you get from those natural solutions… the more expensive the options are.”
More innovation in sustainable energy – and less oil
While updating our cities is one way – updating the technology to use sustainable energy is important too.
Abreau says while the Pan-Canadian framework has action items for the other industries it falls short when talking about the oil industry.
“Industrial sectors accounted for about 37 per cent of Canada’s emissions,” the framework states.
Scott suggests that instead of spending money on fossil fuel subsidies, the government could instead invest in green energies or innovation.
MIT researchers just announced they’ve made a plane that flies using ionic wind – and is fueled by electricity.
“This is the kind of thing that can happen when you’ve got good climate policy … that gives inventors the incentive to develop these types of products,” climate policy expert Tom Green told Global News last week.
Other innovations could include better, more efficient versions of existing sustainable energies, like wind and solar.