Navigating In A Net Zero World

Welcome to Navigating Net Zero: COP26 Series. Navigating Net Zero is JWN Energy’s framework for curating conversations and content related to Canada’s climate opportunities and challenges in a transition to a low-carbon economy. In this special series in advance of COP26, we have asked nine individuals to reflect on where Alberta and Canada fit within a global climate leadership nexus and offer perspectives on navigating collaboratively. Today, Chief Jim Boucher, chair and president, Saa Dene Group, describes how the idea of a circular economy can help advance Net Zero goals.


The Canadian oil and gas industry is known globally for the Athabasca oilsands region near my home in Fort McKay, Alberta. Here you can find over 70 per cent of global bitumen oilsands reserves[1]. Canada managed to become the third largest producer of global oil (9.3 per cent) while only creating 0.1 per cent of global emissions[2]. This is in spite of the internationally funded ‘anti tar sands campaign’.

I was there when the oilsands began development, and I stood in the way of development in 1982. I believe strongly in our Indigenous principles that we have to protect our culture, respect Mother Earth, and strive to make life better for people not just in this generation but seven generations from now too.

When I became Chief of the Fort McKay First Nation I learned the ways of the big energy companies. I saw the way to partner with them and insist we keep our principles and respect for the Mother Earth. And I see today the similarities these anti oil and gas campaigns have to the anti-fur trade campaigns that destroyed the economy and livelihood of our Peoples and my community as a young child.

The Fort McKay First Nation is one of the most successful communities in Canada, largely because of co-operation, partnerships and collaboration with the energy companies. Our average income is higher than the Canadian and Albertan average, and we have next to zero unemployment. This alliance ensures we all respect the environment and that we consider the future generations.

In the last decade the issue for our earth has been less about the visible impacts like open pit mining, and more about climate. We still care about the mining impacts in Fort McKay but as we seek to navigate Net Zero and climate it has broadened our vision. It’s been called the social cost of carbon: the idea that use of fossil fuels causes social impacts like climate change is a cost for everyone, not just the person using it.

It’s not enough that we have found ways to produce the oilsands with lower impacts. We have to think about the global impacts of our product. Not just the production of it but the consumption also. No one wants to buy a product that the producer doesn’t take responsibility for. If we are causing social costs for future generations, we need to acknowledge and address it.

My community is proud of the companies, their workers, and their families that work with the oilsands producers. Jobs in our communities mean we have our own resources to address the clean drinking water issues, high rates of capacity development and education, and that more families have the ability to stay together. These are social benefits we want for all First Nations across Canada and for the future generations. When we calculate the social cost of carbon, we cannot leave out the social benefits.

I believe in Canada, using the principles we insisted on in Fort McKay, that we have a unique opportunity to demonstrate how we can reduce the social cost but ensure we don’t erase the social and community benefits. Taking away those benefits would be a big step backwards for Indigenous reconciliation. There is no justice in a transition that condemns Indigenous Peoples to going back into poverty.

On the social cost side, I see the energy industry is investing billions and working towards Net Zero production through carbon sequestration technologies, carbon capture practices, and integrating renewable power sources into their production. This is a game changer and a big step towards Net Zero and reducing the social cost of carbon. But production only accounts for 20 per cent of the emissions created from hydrocarbons. If we will truly think of respecting our planet and the next seven generations we have to think about the 80 per cent of emissions from consumption.

The federal government has obligated itself to meaningful consultation and informed consent for new laws that impact First Nations. The Supreme Court ruled the honour of the Crown also demands consultation. Words are not enough, reconciliation demands action. The federal government has not kept its promise and has not consulted on the Just Transition. It was an insult to all First Nations to set the deadline to make a submission on the Just Transition on National Truth and Reconciliation Day — 10 days after an unnecessary federal election.

We need to start looking at how our products are used, and their costs and benefits to society when calculating the social cost of carbon.

I believe the answer to Net Zero is in the idea of a circular economy. We can use a lot of the same technologies to reduce emissions from production of the oilsands for the consumption side too. Already there is a circular economy building around emissions. With carbon as a feedstock we wouldn’t treat carbon as a waste disposal problem; it would become a valuable product to make things from. The Three Rs are the path to sustainability: reduce, reuse, return all of our emissions.

Many people don’t know that CO2 can be recycled into valuable products. But that’s what Mother Earth does. It uses the energy of the sun to turn CO2 into forests, life, and many industrial products like fertilizer and limestone for cement. We can make many of those same products with modern technology. Captured CO2 can be used to make things like pre-fab concrete and cement additives, carbon nanotubes, ethanol, propanol, magnesium carbonate, and many other everyday products. We have an opportunity to expand our economy for future generations while achieving Net Zero.

Several organizations and collaborations already exist, such as the Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero initiative, while Elon Musk has created XPRIZE competitions for new technologies to further the economic value of carbon at lower prices. Accelerators such as this are making this even easier by focusing money into carbon-tech start-ups that are focused on commercializing new ideas to make money from products made from CO2. Norway has the Catapult program that does much the same thing.

More action is required, and now. During the recent federal election options to transform energy with the circular economy weren’t even discussed. First Nations have not been consulted and the government does not have the moral or legal right to continue with ideas for a Just Transition that will take Reconciliation backwards and create an unsure path for future generations. We need to insist this third option of an energy transformation is considered.

If Canadian oil and gas will take responsibility for the full life cycle of their products to move towards Net Zero then why wouldn’t we seriously consider it. It is the only approach that will keep the social benefits but reduce the social costs. It will also protect our future generations, my grandchildren and their children.

Anywhere you travel in Canada you will find people who tell you we need to do better, that it is the responsibility of Canadians to lead the world in responsible, Net-Zero energy. They will tell you it is our social responsibility as a member of the First World to lead the way for people to follow.

My experience is that we can, and we will, if we follow the principles of respecting Mother Earth and making life better for this generation and the seven that follow.

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