It’s time for oil and gas to get real on net zero

Catherine McKenna is a former federal minister of environment and climate change. Ms. McKenna is CEO of Climate and Nature Solutions and chair of the United Nations Secretary-General’s expert group on net-zero emissions.

Catherine McKenna

This summer scorched the Earth, breaking heat records globally and setting off wildfires that choked North American cities. And Suncor chief executive officer Rich Kruger? He chose this moment to announce that his company will double down on oil sands production and sideline its renewables strategy.

Regrettably, Suncor is not a rogue producer. Recently, Shell and BP announced plans to slow-walk clean energy and pump more fossil fuels – the main cause of the climate crisis. They chose to spend the vast majority of their record profits on shareholder dividends and executive compensation while investing a small fraction in the clean energy transition. Incredibly, at the same time, oil sands companies demand that Canadian taxpayers spend even more to subsidize their carbon capture projects. This contravenes the basic principle that polluters should pay for the damage they cause.

These announcements are shameful, but at least we know what we’re dealing with. After years of pious corporate announcements and feel-good advertising, it’s magical thinking to believe the oil and gas sector has anything but its own profits at heart. Especially after ExxonMobil – where Mr. Kruger was a 40-year veteran – spent decades hiding, denying and downplaying the climate risks posed by fossil fuels. This is why it’s time to do what a majority of Canadians – including in Alberta – believe is necessary and put a hard cap on emissions from Canada’s oil and gas industry.

We need to get serious about net zero and not let bad actors make the Paris agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees – and averting the worst effects of climate change – meaningless.

We must reduce global emissions in half by 2030 if we are to achieve net zero by 2050. That requires far more ambitious efforts to reduce emissions now while scaling up clean-energy investments. Bogus plans to reach net zero at the 11th hour exacerbate the climate crisis and amount to nothing more than greenwashing.

Last year, at COP27, the United Nations released a report, Integrity Matters, produced by its High-Level Expert Group, which I chaired. The report establishes clear criteria for net-zero commitments: Any company or region setting net-zero targets cannot continue to build or invest in new fossil fuel supply. Companies cannot defer real emissions reductions by buying carbon credits. Nor can they privately lobby against climate action while claiming to be climate champions. Progress on net-zero commitments must be publicly reported and independently verified. These are tangible, specific standards that combined can move the world in the right direction.

But one year later, while other industries have started to step up, many oil and gas producers are making things worse while hiding behind trade associations such as the Pathways Alliance – a consortium that includes Suncor – and which is currently being investigated by Canada’s Competition Bureau for misleading advertising.

How bad is it? A 2021 report found that several Pathways member companies – Suncor, Cenovus, Canadian Natural Resources – have no plans to stop approving new extraction projects or exploration. Investigative reporting found that the Pathways Alliance lobbied to delay and weaken the proposed federal cap on oil and gas emissions.

On top of this, a report released last week found that Canada is poised to be the world’s second largest developer of new oil and gas extraction to 2050. The associated emissions generated would be equivalent to opening 117 new coal-fired power plants. This is wrong and wrongheaded for both the climate and for the economy.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said it best: “Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness. Such investments will soon be stranded assets – a blot on the landscape and a blight on investment portfolios. But it doesn’t have to be this way.”

Indeed, Canada’s oil and gas sector could be part of the solution to the climate crisis instead of a significant contributor. They could be leaders not laggards by making Canada a clean energy powerhouse that creates good jobs for workers and helps Canada win in the trillion-dollar clean economy.

Instead, Suncor and fronts like the Pathways Alliance remind us why talk is cheap. Canadians aren’t fools. They can see through the spin. But time is running out. Absolute emissions from oil and gas are rising. Real action – and a hard cap on oil and gas emissions – is needed now.

Catherine McKenna is a former federal minister of environment and climate change. Ms. McKenna is CEO of Climate and Nature Solutions and chair of the United Nations Secretary-General’s expert group on net-zero emissions. She participated in the UN Climate Ambition Summit in New York on Wednesday.