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Misconceptions of what ‘net-zero emissions’ actually means will have dire health impacts

By Geoff Strong and Richard van der Jagt
Republished with permission from The Hill TImes

We cannot emphasize enough that current plans for addressing climate change are incompatible with an acceptable destiny. Our future health, as opposed to dollars, must become our priority.

A key component of Canada’s climate plan, and that of other countries, is the deceptive term ‘net-zero emissions.’ The prefix ‘net’ implies a difference, such as between one’s gross and net salary.

Each member country of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) selected a baseline year when mapping out its climate plan. Canada chose 2005, when carbon emissions were maximum at 730,000,000 metric tonnes (730 MT). Thus, for any year—say 2019, when Canada’s reported emissions were 691 MT—net emissions would be calculated as

691-730 MT = -39 MT (a reduction of 5.3 per cent, 2005-2019).

The IPCC employed the term ‘net-zero’ under influence from member countries, which were likely swayed by fossil fuels. IPCC indicated net-zero to mean near-zero emissions by 2050, but participating countries interpreted it differently. They presumed that if emissions stayed ‘at or below’ their baseline year, then they achieve net-zero. Member countries need to recognize that near-zero emissions are the actual goal.

The world also needs to draw down existing atmospheric CO2. This year, average global CO2 levels will be 422 parts per million (ppm). It should be under 300 ppm for a stable climate.

IPCC member countries misinterpreted current global mean temperature to be directly related to the current atmospheric CO2 concentration. This is a serious misconception, because warming experienced in any year results from emissions over the previous 50-100 years. Thus, if CO2 were to stay at 422 ppm, the climate would continue to warm for perhaps another century. This occurs because there is a lag of several decades to a century between the time CO2 reaches a particular level and when total warming potential is realized. Climate model estimates suggest that 422 ppm has a potential for 3-5 °C warming. Recent research suggests warming may be even greater because of a reduction in atmospheric aerosols as carbon emissions fall, allowing higher radiation.

Moreover, another misperception existing among many governments is that we can use various carbon sequestration methods to counter carbon emissions and draw down excess atmospheric CO2 at the same time. That presumption enables emissions to continue unabated, and this misconception is leading mankind down the path to global catastrophe. Carbon sequestration plans include planting millions of trees, and utilizing new unproven technologies such as Direct Atmospheric Capture and Carbon Capture at Source. These three combined sequestrations cannot make a measurable counter to annual carbon emissions, and would require several centuries to draw down atmospheric CO2. Most of mankind may extinguish itself if current carbon emissions continue unabated.

The frequency of recent severe weather events exacerbated by our warming climate is abnormal. These events will worsen over the next 20 years if the world cannot agree on a realistic plan for GHG reductions, requiring a rapid reduction in fossil fuel use. The IPCC suggests countries reduce carbon emissions by over 50 per cent by 2030, and 90 per cent by 2040. With present national climate plans, this is unachievable.

There is only one realistic way to achieve the required carbon emission reductions. Mandating industries to reduce emissions without an alternative energy source would cause a global economic meltdown. Instead, we must replace fossil fuel energy with renewable energy sources (wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric). Replacing fossil fuel vehicles with EVs will achieve about 20 per cent of necessary emission reductions, if governments deliver on promises to restrict new car sales to EVs by 2035 or sooner. Renewables would allow market forces to decrease the demand for fossil fuels without government interference. Jobs lost from the fossil fuel industry would be compensated by an economic boost and new jobs in renewables.

Realizing that rapid conversions to renewable energy may yet have unknown setbacks, another advantage would be a large reduction in air pollutants and GHGs. Burning fossil fuels produce carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide, along with GHGs. Poor air quality causes multiple health problems, including lung disease, many cancers, asthma, and neurodegenerative disorders. Renewables would be a win-win for the entire world, except for fossil fuel billionaires. We cannot emphasize enough that current plans for addressing climate change are incompatible with an acceptable destiny. Our future health, as opposed to dollars, must become our priority.

Geoff Strong is a climate scientist, writer, and educator based in Duncan, B.C.
Richard van der Jagt is a retired hematologist/oncologist with a longstanding research interest on the effects of the environment on health, an adjunct professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa, and a member of the Board of Directors of Prevent Cancer Now.