What does net zero actually mean? 

Achieving “net zero” means equalling the difference between the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by human activity and the amount removed from the atmosphere. GHGs in Canada include carbon dioxide (80%) and methane (14%), among others. Net-zero emissions is similar to carbon neutrality, which is often describes business operations. 

Canada is among more than 120 countries committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. The government of Canada has also established a path to get there with specific milestones.  

In 2021, the latest data available, the country’s total emissions were 670 Mt CO2 eq. Most of Canada’s GHGs (over 80%) come from producing and consuming energy such as using diesel to transport goods, natural gas to heat homes or coal to generate electricity. Other emission sources include agriculture, waste, and product use. 

Breakdown of Canada’s Emissions by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Sector (2021)

Source: National Inventory Report 1990-2021

The first step identified to reduce emissions is electrification, including eliminating most fossil fuel generated electricity, and electrifying homes and businesses. Other immediate steps include encouraging more use of biofuels, and other clean energy sources. 

But reaching net-zero emissions does not require eliminating all emissions. Instead, some emissions can be offset by natural carbon sinks like reforestation, planting new trees in new places, and more plants to remove carbon from the atmosphere. There are also important innovations in technology to remove GHGs including carbon capture and storage (CCS), and direct air capture (DAC).  

What are net zero targets in Atlantic Canada? 

All four Atlantic provinces have committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, with the Government of Prince Edward Island committed to 2040. New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have released plans outlining their pathways to help achieve these overarching goals, and Government of Newfoundland and Labrador has established an Advisory Council to help determine how the province should achieve this goal. 

Additionally, several communities across the region and elsewhere in Canada including Halifax and Saint John have made their own commitments to reach net zero by 2050 or even earlier. Furthermore, utilities and businesses are increasingly releasing net-zero or carbon neutral plans.  

PEI’s Path to net zero with innovative policies, approaches and initiatives

Source: PEI's 2040 Net Zero Framework

What are the challenges and opportunities with reaching net zero in Atlantic Canada? 

Firstly, each province has a unique geographic, demographic and economic make up influences how energy is produced and consumed. This means each province and utility will rely on different strategies to help clean the electricity grid as well as meet increasing demand due to electrification. Businesses may also have technological limitations to reduce emissions compared to other jurisdictions.  

There are many opportunities to develop new clean energy sources, both for electricity generation and clean fuels. Atlantic Canada has an abundance of renewable energy sources available and a skilled workforce to capitalize on these possibilities. New energy technologies or sources will generate economic benefits such as through the development of offshore and onshore wind, clean hydrogen or advanced small modular reactors.  

For residents, research indicates increased electrification and investments in efficiency may reduce overall household energy costs, despite increased costs for purchasing new technologies such as heat pumps or electric vehicles.    

Challenges with the transition to net-zero emissions include the upfront costs and rising electricity rates that could impact both residents and businesses. There are also concerns with uncertain timelines with new or emerging technologies and lengthy regulatory processes to develop projects.  


Full disclosure: The views in this article may not represent all those in the energy sector. The Atlantica Centre for Energy represents many of the largest energy producers and consumers in Atlantic Canada, including renewable energy. However, the Centre’s members also represent governments, research groups and academia. The Centre examines all types of energy to help decarbonize while growing economies across the region.