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Explainer: what is a net-zero transition?

In August 2021, a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the United Nations body that interprets the science behind climate change) found that global changes related to climate change were both widespread and rapidly intensifying. 

“Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion—such as continued sea level rise—are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years,” the IPCC writes in a newsroom post about the report’s publication.

The report also made clear that it’s not too late to act: strong, broad-based reductions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions can still limit the effects of climate change. But decision-makers everywhere need to act quickly, and the solutions they propose must match the scale of the crisis at hand.

Many countries are responding to climate change by setting net-zero emissions targets, meaning that by a set date they will either produce zero greenhouse gas emissions or offset the impact of their emissions through activities that remove greenhouse gases from the air (through tree planting or carbon capture and storage technologies).

Over 120 countries have committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, including Canada. In November 2020 the federal government introduced the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, which establishes a series of reductions targets set at five-year intervals until 2050. In February 2021 it also established an advisory body to offer advice on the best pathways for achieving net-zero emissions in Canada.

To climate scientists, researchers and some policymakers, these types of measures are necessary if Canada (and the world) hopes to avoid total climate disaster. “In the decades ahead, fundamental changes to Canada’s economy and energy systems are inevitable—and they will be driven in large part by factors outside Canada’s control,” writes the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices in its report Canada’s Net Zero Future. “Ultimately, this country’s path to net zero will be defined by policy choices made by all orders of government, as well as technological innovation and factors beyond domestic control, such as global market shifts and changing energy demand.”

The CICC’s report outlines a number of pathways which could lead Canada to net-zero emissions and highlights four areas that will be central to any transition plan: buildings, transportation, industry and negative emissions solutions. 

But the report is also clear that any drive to net-zero will require big policy changes that depart significantly from business-as-usual. To date, Canada’s current plan has been criticized for being insufficient to bring emissions to net zero by 2050.

Earlier this year, the International Energy Agency published comprehensive modelling on how to safely make the transition to a net-zero energy system by 2050. It sets 400 milestones to get there, with emphasis on a rapid shift away from fossil fuels and investment in renewable energy. It too emphasizes that “achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 will require nothing short of the complete transformation of the global energy system.”

The types of changes outlined in the reports above will cause big changes in the way that many of us live our lives—from where we live and how we heat our home to what we eat or how we get to work, school or other community commitments. And since many of these decisions will be beyond our ability to fully control in our day-to-day lives, they’ll require major public buy-in, as well as government incentives and tax breaks.

But it’s almost impossible to make decisions about things like retrofitting, meat consumption, electrical vehicles and more if we’re facing a tidal wave of other issues: rising income inequality, homelessness, skyrocketing childcare costs or having to work multiple precarious jobs to pay rent and buy food. 

That’s why, as Canada shifts toward net-zero, it’s essential that we have a framework that puts people first—that understands the links between climate change and other systemic issues like poverty and racism, and directly engages with communities to find out what they need in order to participate in the net-zero transition (For more on this, see our blog post on a just-transition framework).

The Green Resilience Project aims to work at this intersection in two ways: first, by sparking conversation about the links between climate action and income security in many types of communities across Canada; and second, by identifying what communities want and need to take part in the transition at a local level. We hope that with the right policy solutions in place, a net-zero transition can be seen as an exciting opportunity, rather than a source of fear and uncertainty about how we’ll survive a changing economy.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks as we begin to announce our community partners and continue to share news and information about the links between climate change, income security and their role in building strong, resilient communities.

Our explainer blog series takes a closer look at the key concepts that guide the Green Resilience Project. To view the entire series, click here.