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Guess who said this: “I am now probably the first and early adopter of thinking that we can hit a net-zero target, and we can get there faster than anyone, anywhere else.”

Sounds great. It points the way to net zero greenhouse gas emissions, and climbing to that mountaintop before the midcentury deadline of 2050. The speaker, however, might be a surprise. It was Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, last summer at a United Conservative Party leadership debate, putting herself at the fore of climate thinking within her party. It is the same Ms. Smith who a decade ago said climate “science isn’t settled” and, now that she endorses net zero, a premier whose climate policies focus on fossil fuels.

This is what’s happened in the few short years that “net zero by 2050″ hit the mainstream, after the International Energy Agency in 2021 detailed how the world can reach the goal. For some, it’s morphing from a truly ambitious target to a much vaguer slogan – one so diffuse that political and business leaders can at once claim devotion to net zero and at the same time advocate for more fossil fuels.

There’s a big difference between saying the words and doing something about it. Think of the Kyoto Protocol in the 1990s and its failed 2012 targets. While 2050 isn’t far away, it’s far enough that current leaders can comfortably be in favour while knowing they will be long gone when the date arrives.

Some large emitters are taking action. In 2021, soon after the IEA net zero roadmap, a coalition of oil sands companies promised to reach net zero. They pledged to cut 22 megatonnes of emissions by 2030 – oil sands were at 85 MT in 2021 – and last year said they would spend $24-billion to do it. The bulk of the money, including billions in public subsidies, is planned for carbon capture.

The 2030 goal is essential. It’s the key interim milestone, and the basis of the 2015 Paris Agreement, a landmark global treaty. No one can credibly say net zero 2050 without a concrete 2030 goal. That’s another problem in Alberta. The province in April put out a climate plan. Its “aspiration” is net zero 2050 but there was no 2030 target.

A promise of net zero cannot be used as a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card, with a feigned fealty to climate action but, in reality, a plan to put off the work. Net zero 2050 can’t happen if, like a student cramming for an exam, investments aren’t made until the 2040s. There’s a danger the seemingly distant 2050 becomes yet another delay tactic, not unlike the baseless claim a decade ago that the solidity of climate science was somehow up for debate.

Lack of robust action is a problem across Canada. Saskatchewan, like Alberta, insists it is impossible to get to 100 per cent clean power by 2035. But fully clean power by 2035 is a necessary step to reach economywide net zero by 2050.

In Ontario, the province has increased investments in natural gas, which is questionable, and is starting work on new nuclear power, which makes sense. But the Progressive Conservative government seems to ignore the vast potential of wind power. In the Canada Energy Regulator’s recent forecast of net zero, it sees Ontario doubling its nuclear output but wind would become the province’s No. 1 source of electrical power. The CER highlighted wind power’s low costs to build and operate.

In Nova Scotia, there is stress over the pending carbon tax, which people in the province mostly avoided in recent years and as of this summer will have to pay – and receive quarterly payments from Ottawa. On power at least, the province has ambitions. Nova Scotia, still reliant on coal, wants to hit 80 per cent clean power by 2030.

The broad nature of net zero by 2050 invites distractions from the core mission of reducing use of fossil fuels. LNG – natural gas for export – is top of that list, proposed by groups such as the Public Policy Forum and advocated by Alberta. The idea feels alluring: Canada exports LNG to Asia, where it is burned, instead of dirtier coal. What’s never mentioned is whether LNG displaces renewables and the potential cost to Canada for other countries to hand over credit.

Net zero 2050 cannot become an empty slogan. It needs to be a rallying cry for action. And while some of Ms. Smith’s proposals are off target, there’s one thing she’s exactly right on – Canadian innovation. “We can get there faster than anyone,” she said last summer. That’s what net zero really means – a finish line to cross as soon as possible.

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