This week, Calgary welcomes the World Petroleum Congress. The theme? The Path to Net Zero. Echoing the pervasive ad campaign of our province’s own Pathways Alliance, the oil industry seems to finally be embracing our sobering reality: the climate crisis is real, and we’re going to have to do something about it.

The problem is, the main action the industry wants to take is using taxpayer dollars to extract more fossil fuels, using magical technology to whisk away a small fraction of its total emissions, while continuing to exacerbate the climate crisis.

Never mind that this year there have been pronouncement after pronouncement of companies pledging to do less — not more — to stave off climate collapse. For Shell, BP (previously self-branded as Beyond Petroleum) and Alberta’s Suncor, the glint of black gold has corporations continuing to ride the fossil fuel carousel rather than reaching for the gold transition ring. All while cascading disasters of fire, drought and flood befall our country and world. Suggesting we should be doing more, faster, not less, slower.

So forgive me for being a little jaded when I hear about their net-zero plans.

We do have an objective source of best practices for a net-zero transition because a year ago, the UN released its report, Integrity Matters: Net Zero Commitments by Businesses, Financial Institutions, Cities and Regions, with a handy checklist to ensure that those professing such plans are not just greenwashing, but walking the walk.

Let’s use this checklist to check.

Thou shalt have substantial near- and medium-term GHG reductions. Even with a distant goal of net zero, you must work hard, right away, to begin the transition. Fifty per cent of the greenhouse gas reductions should occur by 2030. Too many times have targets been set, no effort made and as the deadline approaches, hands are thrown up as “There is no way we can meet these impossible targets.” (See: History of Canadian government GHG pledges.)

Thou shalt have interim targets. While a final destination of 2050 is frequently touted, no interim targets are identified. Ideally, the targets should be annual, so we can see in real-time whether or not they are achieved.

Indeed, efforts by the federal government to set a single interim emission target for 2030 have met strong resistance from corporate leaders.

For Shell, BP (previously self-branded as Beyond Petroleum) and Alberta’s Suncor, the glint of black gold has them riding the fossil fuel carousel rather than reaching for the gold transition ring, writes Dr. Joe Vipond.

Thou shalt have independent third-party verification. To ensure the accuracy of the accounting of GHG emissions. To date, independent measurements suggest current emissions are strongly undercounted by industry and government.

Thou shalt count combustion emissions. The net-zero target proposed for 2050 only accounts for production emissions: the GHGs that are created while producing fossil fuels. This is only 20 per cent of the life cycle emissions of the product; the other 80 per cent occurs when you burn it, to fly your plane, or heat your home.

These need to be accounted for.

Thou shalt not engage in climate-endangering lobbying. If you want to be celebrated as a climate leader for your net-zero plans, you can’t be engaging in lobbying to undermine climate policy. This is occurring as we speak, on the oil and gas emissions cap, undermining the companies’ own net-zero goals.

Outside of the UN report, some Alberta-specific concerns.

Thou shalt not rely on non-existent technologies to meet goals. Instead of decreasing emissions via burning fewer fossil fuels, hopes are to use carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) to Rapunzel them away. Never mind that this technology has never been used at the scale required by the oilsands industry.

In addition, nuclear, via small modular reactors, is another technology that is supposed to save Alberta. Despite no commercial reactors in existence and no understanding of the economics of either technology.

Thou shalt not rely on taxpayer dollars to fund your net-zero plan. Like all CCUS projects that have been built in the past, future ones apparently are not economical unless heavily subsidized by government. Despite record profits being recorded by oil companies this year and a tragic history of underinvestment in climate technologies.

Calgary’s relationship with climate and oil is challenging. Having brought us much prosperity, it has come on the back of a damaged climate. We need to accept our responsibility for safeguarding our children’s (and our own) future.

It is time to stop the magical thinking and start to do the hard work.

Dr. Joe Vipond is an emergency doctor in Calgary, Alta., the past-president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, and co-founder of the Calgary Climate Hub.

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Vipond: "Calgary’s relationship with climate and oil is challenging. Having brought us much prosperity, it has come on the back of a damaged climate."

Alberta's relationship with climate and oil is challenging. Canada's relationship with climate and oil is challenging. The whole world's relationship with climate and oil is challenging.
Wealth that degrades our life-support systems is illusory. The costs of climate change and fossil-fuel pollution are prohibitive.
AB's O&G industry has barely started to fund its clean-up liabilities: north of $260 billion. How much of that will be dumped on taxpayers? Time will tell.

The fundamental issue is market failure. Mispricing goods, services, and paradigms. Externalizing health and environmental costs. Downloading those costs to the public purse, the environment, and future generations. A recipe for disaster.
An economic system that permits/ignores/rewards damage to our biosphere is doomed to failure.
Climate change is the biggest market failure in history. Fossil fuel producers and consumers use the sky as a free dump. A massive invisible subsidy. Violating polluter-pay and free-market principles.
No real progress can be made unless the market failure is resolved.

In a truly free market, the fossil-fuel model would not be viable. Subsidies, visible and invisible, are the only way it survives.
Visible fossil fuel subsidies in AB and Canada total billions of dollars. The giveaway party that never ends.
Every smokestack and tailpipe represents an invisible subsidy. Oil producers and consumers use the sky as a free dump. The fossil fuel industry is viable only because it largely externalizes environmental, climate change, and health costs. Invisible subsidies are astronomical.
If fossil fuel producers and consumers don't pay the full tab, someone else must pay. A massive transfer of wealth. Stealing from our grandchildren. Subsidizing our own destruction. Voodoo economics.

Solution? End the market failure. The costs of fossil fuels are prohibitive. Put a realistic price on all goods and services, including energy. Price in the environmental and health costs of fossil fuels. End all fossil subsidies. Support carbon pricing.
Consumers need realistic price signals to guide them towards rational decisions. Realistic pricing prices unsustainable goods and services and design — and excessive behavior (consumption, pollution, waste, etc.) — out of the market.
The speed at which we shift away from fossil fuels largely depends on economic signals. Price in the damage, and fossil fuels become a losing proposition overnight. The fossil-fuel industry and system must cease to be a profitable enterprise.
Until then we subsidize our own destruction.