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The Sun is the main driver of climate change. Not you. Not carbon dioxide.


Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2019

Robert Lyman is an Ottawa energy policy consultant and former public servant of 27 years, serving in senior policy advisory roles. He was a diplomat for 10 years prior to that service.

Note: Due to technical problems with a previous version of this post, the previous version has been deleted and the content reposted here. We apologize for any inconvenience to our readers.

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) recently (April 2019) published its latest report on Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. The report includes data covering the period 1990 to 2017. It offers a very useful factual basis upon which to consider and debate climate policy. The report can be seen here:

This article is intended for those whose eyes roll back in their heads when confronted with page after page of numbers in columns, and so would rather not read the full ECCC report. It is divided into two parts. Part 1 will set out “just the facts”; that is, a summary of what the data shows, cast as objectively as possible. Part 2 will provide my “editorial” comments from the perspective of someone who writes frequently on Canadian climate policy as a “skeptic”.

Part 1 – Data Overview

Total Emissions


Canada’s GHG emissions in 2017 were 716 megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Total emissions varied considerably over the period 1990 to 2017; They:

  • rose from 602 Mt in 1990 to a peak of 744 Mt in 2007,
  • declined to a trough of 682 Mt in 2009,
  • rose again to 722 Mt from 2013 to 2015,
  • declined slightly to 708 Mt in 2016, and
  • increased to 716 Mt in 2017.

Thus, from 1990 to 2017, total emissions increased by 18.9%, or 114 Mt.

Emissions by Economic Sector


In 2017, the emissions by economic sector were as shown in Table 1.

Table 1

Canada’s 2017 GHG Emissions


Emissions (Mt)Percentage
Oil and gas19527.2
Electricity generation    7410.3
Heavy industry7310.2
Waste and others425.9

The increase in emissions from 1990 to 2017 was mostly due to an 84%  (89 Mt) increase in emissions in the oil and gas sector and a 43%  (53 Mt) increase in the transportation sector. These increases were partially offset by a 20 Mt decrease in the electricity generation sector and a 24 Mt decrease in emissions from heavy industry. Most of the decline in the emissions from heavy industry occurred during the period 1997 to 2009, while most of the reduction in emissions from electricity generation occurred from 2007 to 2017. Transportation sector emissions have been essentially flat (around 172 Mt per year) since 2010.

Breakdown in Oil and Gas Sector Emissions


The current breakdown of emissions by oil and gas sub-sector is shown in Table 2.

Table 2

Canada’s Oil and Gas Sector Emissions 2017


Emissions (Mt)Percentage
Oil sands in situ41.721.4
Oil Sands upgrading22.412.3
Oil sands mining16.48.4
Natural gas49.525.4
Conventional oil31.316.1

Since 1990, emissions from oil sands in situ production grew from 4.8 Mt to 41.7 Mt, the largest change in this sector. Emissions from conventional oil production grew over the same period from 23.1 Mt per year to 31.3 Mt per year, while those from oil sands upgrading grew from 6.2 My per year to 22.4 Mt per year.

Breakdown of Transportation Sector Emissions


The current breakdown of emissions by transportation sub-sector is shown in Table 3.

Table 3                                

Canada’s Transportation Sector Emissions 2017


Emissions (Mt)Percentage
Freight trucks59.934.4
Passenger light trucks50.529.0
Passenger cars      34.619.9
Freight (Rail, Marine)       11.96.8
Passenger (bus, aviation)     8.64.9
Other (e.g. off-road)8.95.1

Transportation emissions grew from 122 Mt in 1990 to 174 Mt in 2017, an increase of 43%. The composition of transportation emissions changed considerably during the period. Emissions from passenger cars declined from 42.5 Mt to 34.6 Mt, while those from passenger light trucks (SUVs and pickup trucks) increased from 21.6 MT to 50.6 Mt. So, basically, passenger vehicle emissions grew from 64.1 Mt to 85.1 Mt, a growth of 33%. The fastest rate of emissions growth from 1990 to 2017 was by freight trucks, which grew from 19.4 Mt to 59.9 Mt, or 209 %. Emissions from the “other” category declined from 18.5 Mt in 1990 to 8.9 Mt in 2017, a reduction of 52%.

Breakdown of Electricity Generation Sector Emissions                     

In 2017, of the total electricity generation sector emissions of 74 Mt, coal-fired generators accounted for 57.4 Mt (78%), natural gas-fired generators 11.8 Mt (16%) and other sources 5.1 Mt (7%).

Emissions from coal-fired generation peaked at 108.5 Mt in 2000 and have since been cut almost in half. Natural gas-fired generation has varied slightly, in the range of 12.9 Mt to 16.9 Mt, since 2010.

Emissions by Province and Territory


The following table is extracted directly from the ECCC report,

Table A.7 from page 23 of the report.

In 2017, emissions from Alberta and Ontario combined totaled 431.5 Mt, or 60% of Canada’s total. Emissions from Alberta and Saskatchewan, the two major hydrocarbon producing provinces, totaled 350.7 Mt, or almost half of Canada’s emissions.

Since 1990, emissions have declined in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia,  Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories.

Part 2 – Commentary

The most recent data on emissions is significant for the evidence it provides in relation to two issues:

  • Whether governmental actions to reduce GHG emissions have been successful to date; and
  • Whether the federal government’s target of reducing Canada’s emissions by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030 can be met.

ECCC changes its methodologies for calculating emissions levels almost every year. For example, in the 2018 report on Canada’s emissions, ECCC found that emissions in 2016 were 704 Mt. However, the figure quoted for 2016 in the current report is 708 Mt. It is difficult to measure performance when the data changes every year.

The goal of successive Canadian governments has been to reduce emissions from 1990 levels. With the rise in emissions in 2017, this makes 20 of the 27 years since 1990 when emissions have increased rather than decreased, and in three of the years that emissions declined it was clearly due to the effects of the global financial crisis that started in 2007-08.

The largest emissions reductions have occurred In Ontario and Quebec and in the electricity generation and heavy industry sectors. The emissions reductions in Ontario were due statistically to a reduction in heavy industry activity, possibly due to the departure of industry from the province in response to the inhospitable economic and environmental policies of the McGuinty and Wynne governments and of the doubling of electricity rates in the province. Deindustrializing may reduce GHG emissions but it has a large cost in terms of a diversified economy and well-paid jobs. The new Ford government in Ontario has committed to turn the economy around and to address the high electricity costs imposed by the previous governments. It would not be surprising if Ontario’s economy expanded and emissions rose as a result.

The ECCC report contains no information that would allow one to assess how Quebec has reduced its annual emissions from 20 Mt in 2005 to 14.3 Mt in 2017. For many years, Quebec has had one of the highest levels of taxation, the highest level of indebtedness, and the most generous social spending programs in North America. The recent election of a new Quebec provincial government may change that.

The emissions reduction from electricity generation would appear, based on the data, to be due primarily to the near halving of coal-fired generation from 2000 to 2017. This has resulted in much higher generation costs and higher consumer electricity rates. The remaining coal fired generation, located mainly in Alberta and Saskatchewan, produced 57.4 Mt in 2017

The continuing rise in emissions from oil sands indicates that the efforts of the federal and provincial governments and of aggressive environmental and aboriginal groups to reduce emissions from this sector by increasing taxes and regulations and restricting market access have so far not been effective, except undoubtedly in harming the investment climate. The growth in emissions seems to have placed a very large target on the back of the oil sands industry, one that will not go away soon. It is unfortunate that, when comparing the social costs and benefits of oil sands development, the data on GHG emissions are not twinned with data on revenues to governments from oil sands production and sales, and compared to those of the renewable energy industries.

The continuing growth in emissions from the transportation sector, despite a plethora of excise, sales and carbon taxes, vehicle fuel efficiency regulations and subsidies to competing fuels and vehicles, is quite striking. It has long been known that the responsiveness of motor fuel demand to higher prices was low, but the continuing rise in fuel demand from owners of passenger vehicles is surprising. While emissions from freight trucks have been essentially stable for eight years (2011 to 2017), the lack of low-carbon alternatives to road freight movement means that present policies will have great difficulty forcing truck emissions lower.

Turning to the question of whether future emission reduction targets will be met, we should recall that the current federal government goal is to reduce emissions to about 511 Mt (i.e. 30% below 2005 emissions of 730 Mt) by 2030, or a reduction of 205 Mt from 2017 levels.

ECCC recently published its estimated results of the federal carbon pricing system. In that document, ECCC stated that, “Carbon pricing will make a significant contribution towards meeting Canada’s greenhouse gas reduction target. A price on carbon could cut carbon pollution across Canada by 80 to 90 million tonnes in 2022, once all provinces and territories have systems that meet the federal standard.

ECCC unfortunately declined to state the dates from and to which it was measuring reductions. It did, however, include in its assessment a graph showing, notionally at least, a steady decline from 2018 to 2022, with the 2018 emissions total close to 730 Mt (an increase from today?) and the 2022 total close to 680 Mt. It is not all clear how that results in an 80-90 Mt reduction. The more relevant point, however, may be that the emissions reduction that was supposed to have been prompted by the introduction of carbon taxes has not started yet. With every year’s delay, the difficulty in meeting the 2030 target increases. With 2017 as a departure point, Canada would have to reduce emissions by an average of 17 Mt per year (205 divided by 12) to meet the 2030 target. That would slightly exceed the rate of emissions reduction from 2007 to 2009, during the worst recession since the Great Depression, and it would have to continue for 12 years.

Against this background, we have the recent calls from some quarters for even faster and deeper emissions reductions. Such dreams, or nightmares depending on one’s perspective, fly squarely in the face of what the data show is now happening. Facts matter.


  1. What would the numbers by province and nationally look like if you calculated the CO2 emissions on a per capita basis and a per GNP or other relevant economic basis?

  2. Cosmos Voutsinos

    May 19, 2019 at 3:53 pm

    Is the ECCC including absorption sinks reductions in the process of cutting timber for exports? The Paris Accord clearly states to consider carbon sinks.

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