Climate colonialism in Canada’s net-zero policy

Emiliano Castillo Jara, Governance & Sustainability Lab, University of Trier, Germany.

Email: s6emcast@uni-trier.de

Abstract

Canada implemented a net-zero legislation to reduce carbon emissions primarily in the oil sector, framing net-zero as a key component of its energy transition policy. Yet, net-zero distracts attention away from meaningful climate action as it reproduces injustices associated with fossil fuel development. Using the concept of climate colonialism here sheds light on how the Canadian government mobilizes a net-zero narrative to legitimize the expansion of carbon-intensive tar sands development on Indigenous Peoples’ lands.

Introduction

Net-zero has recently emerged as a solution to curb greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and transition to a low-carbon economy, thereby shaping international and national climate agendas (IEA 2021). The notion of net-zero describes the hypothetical balance between GHG released and removed from the atmosphere through negative emissions technologies (NETs), such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), and market-based mechanisms like carbon pricing (Fankhauser et al., 2022). Governments, corporations, and international institutions have adopted net-zero targets, especially in the energy sector, which represents 75% of global emissions (UN n.a.). Canada, for example, passed the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act in 2021 to cut GHG by 40-45% in 2030 through NETs, aligning net-zero with the Paris Agreement (Government of Canada 2021, 2022). As one of the world’s largest crude oil producers and carbon polluters per capita (Canada Energy Regulator 2022; Akenji et al., 2021), Canada, however, faces significant challenges to decarbonizing its economy (Dusky 2021; Al-Aini, Severson-Baker & Gorski 2022). According to some scholars, environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), and Indigenous-led groups (Alliance et al. 2022), Canada’s net-zero plan

overestimates the potential of “climate neutral” technologies to reduce GHG and downplays their economic costs and socio-environmental risks. Furthermore, this plan could exacerbate the impacts of fossil fuel development, particularly tar sands extraction/mining, such as deforestation, violations of Indigenous land rights, and concentration of corporate power in the oil sector. While these consequences have been examined, particularly within environmental justice and critical Indigenous studies (Spice 2018; Temper 2019), the disparities arising from the net-zero policy remain relatively underexplored. Drawing on critical discourse analysis (CDA) and the notion of climate colonialism, I elucidate how the Canadian government articulates a net-zero narrative to promote “carbon neutral” tar sands development at the expense of Indigenous Peoples and the environment. A critical look at this discourse is relevant because, although it largely remains a future imaginary, it already shapes energy policymaking.

Climate colonialism in Canada’s net-zero policy

Climate colonialism describes how energy transition/climate policies aimed at reducing or offsetting GHG primarily in the Global North frequently lead to intensive resource extraction, deforestation, land grabbing, and forced displacement of communities, especially in the Global South (Bumpus & Liverman, 2010; Bhambra & Newell 2022; Sultana 2022). Looking at net-zero through the lens of climate colonialism raises the questions of whose interests the net-zero agenda serve, whose perspectives are marginalized, and how are the risks of net-zero socially distributed. To explore these power dynamics, Canada’s net-zero strategy must be understood within historical colonial modes of fossil fuel extraction and land appropriation (Image 1). In doing so, I argue that 1) the federal government uses the net-zero discourse to conceal the oil industry’s responsibility for climate change, and 2) uses them likewise to justify claims over Indigenous lands.

Image 1. Tar sands mine in Alberta. Photo by author, 2023.

Net-zero is presented by the Canadian government as “a significant opportunity to grow the economy significantly and sustainability, creating jobs and economic prosperity now and into the future” (Environment and Climate Change Canada 2022: 21). The assumption that net-zero is necessary and a desirable energy transition pathway, however, is problematic for several reasons. Tar sands production is the fastest-growing domestic source of GHG— 83 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (Mt CO2 e) in 2019— and will increase 95Mt CO2 e by 2030 (Environment and Climate Change Canada 2022a). This means that the oil industry would need to decrease its emissions more than 45% by 2050 to reach Canada’s net-zero goal. Yet, the net-zero strategy overlooks emissions from bitumen processing, exports, and consumption abroad (Al-Aini, Severson-Baker & Gorski 2022). Moreover, it does not impose restrictions on new fossil fuel investments, raising concerns about its transparency and accountability (Dusky 2021).

The key role of corporate actors in shaping the net-zero policy largely explains the loopholes and flaws of net-zero commitments. Canada’s largest oil companies—Canadian Natural, Cenvious, Conco Phillips, Imperial, and MEG Energy — and Canada’s largest banks— RBC, TD, Scotiabank, BMO, and CIBC—have pledged to reach net-zero and received substantial financial support from the federal government to develop net-zero projects (Anderson 2022). Yet, these corporations keep investing billions of dollars in fossil fuel extraction and blocking strong climate regulations in the oil sector (Carroll 2021; Gutstein 2021; Alliance et al 2022). Rather than tackling GHG and holding corporate and state actors accountable for their emissions, net-zero targets prolong the lifetime of fossil fuel infrastructures by opening new spaces for capital accumulation (Carton et al., 2020; Jean Buck 2021).

By prioritizing entrenched fossil fuel interests, the net-zero plan disproportionately affects communities already impacted by tar sands activities. To extract tar sands and build fossil fuel infrastructures, including NETs, the Canadian government claims ownership over Indigenous Peoples’ lands, ignoring their rights to self-determination and traditional territories established in national, international, and Indigenous law (Reed et al. 2021). In rendering Indigenous lands as empty, governable spaces (Alexander & Stanley 2021), the federal government fails to adequately consult Indigenous communities about the effects of fossil fuel projects on their lands (Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion, n.a.; Indigenous Environmental Network & Oil Change International 2021). Although the net-zero strategy promises to include Indigenous People in energy policymaking, it is unlikely to address Indigenous communities’ concerns over tar sands development. As long as this strategy is rooted in the power structures of the oil industry, Indigenous-led opposition to tar sands expansion will continue across Canada.

Conclusion

Canada’s net-zero policy replicates climate colonialism by normalizing the ongoing occupation of Indigenous lands for “carbon-neutral” tar sands development. Addressing the role of climate colonialism in the net-zero policy requires limiting corporate-driven tar sands extraction and challenging Canada’s assertions of sovereignty over Indigenous lands.

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