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Like a verbal Rorschach test of the climate-change era, the phrase “net-zero emissions” provokes very different reactions depending where you live.

It happens to be the phrase of the moment. It’s a bill currently before the Canadian Parliament (C-12, the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act); it’s an influential report (Net Zero by 2050) by the International Energy Agency that describes how the world can plausibly become non-emitting; it’s the concept behind an agreement this week by the G7 countries to end government support for coal-generated electricity.

For some countries, getting to “net zero” – where your economy no longer adds any greenhouse gases to the atmosphere – is a contest between reducing emissions and having a better life. As those countries recover from the pandemic years, they’ll have to decide whether to devote policy energies and funds to raising living standards and lowering poverty, or to cutting carbon emissions.

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For other countries, there’s no such trade-off. Every increase in economic growth causes a decrease in carbon emissions. They’ve experienced what economists call “absolute carbon decoupling” – that is, their greenhouse-gas emissions are no longer tied to their level of economic activity; on the contrary, every increase in economic activity reduces carbon output.

A new analysis by the Breakthrough Institute, a California climate-policy think tank, identified 32 countries that have experienced at least 15 years of absolute decoupling – their GDPs have risen while emissions have consistently gone down, both in their domestic economies and in things they import. They include the United States, Japan, Mexico, Britain, Singapore, New Zealand, Norway and most of the 26 European Union countries (except Greece, Italy and the Czech Republic).

Those countries are now in a virtuous circle. When their citizens go shopping or build a house or have a child or take a trip to another city, they’re contributing to the decline of atmosphere-warming emissions and hastening their country’s net-zero moment. Their governments can use economic growth itself as a positive climate policy.

It’s not hard to see how it works. Much of what we spend today is on replacing inefficient things with more efficient things. As consumers, we buy a hybrid or electric car, or a higher-efficiency furnace, or a new house built to zero-carbon standards. Corporations invest big in more efficient processes. Governments spend on nonfossil electricity generation and rapid-transit infrastructure. Once green policies are in place and your energy sources aren’t emitting gases, it’s easy for economic growth to be carbon-reducing, in many countries.

You’ll notice that Canada is not one of those countries.

Although Canada’s economy has grown in 15 years, its greenhouse emissions haven’t declined (they’re exactly where they were in 2005). That means our net-zero policies will cause economic pain – and perhaps it means our big goal is not net zero but carbon decoupling. How can we get there?

I spoke with Larry Hughes, a Dalhousie University professor who has published several analyses of the relationship between Canada’s economy, its energy consumption and its carbon emissions.

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He is skeptical that Canada, despite a wide range of impressive new green policies, including carbon pricing, will achieve its modest 2030 emissions target – and if it does, it won’t be because the economy has decoupled from carbon output. The Trudeau government is claiming 52 per cent of that target has already been met as a result of the 2020-21 pandemic slump, and another big chunk by changing its definitions. Still, Canada needs to cut 11 megatonnes a year of carbon for the next decade – something other countries have only accomplished with huge changes.

Other wealthy countries have used growth to cut their emissions because most of their carbon has come from electrical generation, and they’ve invested big in switching to nuclear or other alternatives. Canada is an exception: Its two biggest provinces already have largely carbon-free electrical grids; there’s only a small sliver to be gained in generation.

Instead, Canada’s two main emission sources – equally large and together responsible for more than half our output – are the oil and gas industry and our incredibly inefficient transportation system, dominated by private gas-powered vehicles. The Trudeau policies claim to cut the petroleum industry’s outputs somewhat (purportedly through untried carbon-capture methods, but more realistically through declining demand), but they do little to confront the huge carbon dump that is transportation, beyond some minor electric-vehicle incentives and urban-transit funding. We’ve become addicted to pickup trucks and SUVs this past decade, and we’ll need big policy incentives and penalties to overcome that.

It’s possible to imagine Canadians enjoying the virtuous circle of a carbon-decoupled economy. But to get to that good place, we’ll need to make some big, dramatic changes during this decade.

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