Net zero emissions: What will it take?

road to net zero emissions

The world is looking for ways to drastically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and oil sands producers are among those who have made ambitious commitments to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier. That means reducing GHG emissions from human activity until the Earth maintains a natural climate balance again.

Good progress is being made in the Canadian oil sands as a recent IHS Markit report noted. According to the company’s analysis, the GHG intensity of oil sands production declined again in 2020, confirming a long-term trend. The report predicted that total emissions from oil sands production could begin to decline in the next half decade.

World GHG emissions graph

Promising technology

One of the most promising ways to achieve a net zero goal is through Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS) technologies, which capture large quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2) from industrial activities, preventing them from being released in the atmosphere. The captured CO2  is then typically transported by pipeline to a place where it can be safely re-injected into the ground for storage. However, emerging innovation is now also looking at how to convert captured CO2  into useful products.

Carbon capture and storage technologies have been used for decades around the world in a variety of industries, such as steel, cement and power generation. In Canada, the oil and gas industry has routinely captured CO2 and used it in a process called enhanced oil recovery (EOR), whereby liquified CO2  is pumped into depleted reservoirs to extract the last remaining oil or gas. The CO2 remains in the reservoir permanently, buried deep below the earth’s surface.

Proven path to emissions reduction

CCUS is receiving a lot of attention today because it offers a proven path to reduce GHG emissions. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that carbon capture and storage technologies could reduce up to 13 percent of global GHG emissions (about one fifth of the total mitigation required) by 2050. And a 2020 BMO Capital Markets Report emphasized that CCUS must play a major role in addressing climate change if the world is to achieve zero or near net zero emissions.

Quest facility a leader

Canada is a leader in CCUS technologies and home to nearly one fifth of the 22 large-scale carbon capture and storage facilities on the planet. The majority of this CO2  is permanently stored in deep saline aquifers and COSIA member Canadian Natural is a pioneer in this space. The company is the largest industry owner of carbon capture and storage capacity in the country. Its Quest carbon capture facility (Canadian Natural owns 70%, Chevron 20% and Shell Canada 10%) has stored more CO2 than any other industry facility anywhere in the world!

Quest achieved a milestone in 2020, capturing and storing five million tonnes of CO2 since it was launched in 2015, successfully reducing emissions from the company’s Scotford upgrader by about one third. That’s the equivalent of taking 1.25 million cars off the road for a year. That’s the kind of impact CCS can have through decarbonizing oil and gas production, thus helping contribute to Canada’s climate change commitments.


As for the carbon utilization part of CCUS, many companies are working hard to find ways to transform captured CO2 into valuable products. The recent NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE international competition, which was co-sponsored by the oil sands industry, gave this area a huge push onto the world stage over its five-year run. 

It promoted awareness, proving this can be done, and ignited global discussion of a circular carbon economy. Innovators working in this space are turning captured carbon into usable products – such as building materials, alternative fuels, and even spirits like vodka. The initiative raised the profile of carbon capture technologies worldwide and generated partnerships and investments that will continue to drive innovation in this area for years to come. 

Leading environmental innovation

COSIA works with some of Canada’s, and the world’s top scientists and engineers on innovation to reduce greenhouse gases and their impacts on air, water and land. We recognize it is possible to address climate change while also meeting growing global energy demand and supporting economic development. To date, COSIA members have developed 175 GHG technologies at a cost of $249 million. Many of these projects are applicable beyond the oil sands, potentially helping to reduce emissions in other parts of the world.

Interested in other innovation that’s underway through COSIA? See these blogs:
•    Taking on fugitive emissions
•    Advancing geothermal energy for mining
•    The electrification of mining

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