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  • Writer's pictureGraham Harris

Visualizing three decades of Canada's GHG emissions

In recent blog posts, I've focused on visualizing the GHG emissions inventory, offset projects and compliance routes for regulated facilities in Alberta - the province with the longest-running price on carbon in the country, as well as the province with most heavy industrial activity.

This blog post, however, takes a broader view - visualizing nearly three decades worth of Canada's GHG emissions (as reported by Canada to the UNFCCC). Whereas a lot of national and international attention is paid to Alberta's carbon footprint - and that of the oil and gas industry in particular - it is worth bearing in mind that GHG emissions result from a wide variety of sources across the country, and that each sector of the economy will require decarbonization if we are to reach the national goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

The bar-chart race below is based on the most detailed category breakdown of emissions produced by Environment and Climate Change Canada. There are 70 categories in total - as that much data doesn't show well, I've focused on the most significant 30 categories, and grouped the remaining into an "everything else" category. The chart below shows the 20 largest emissions categories in each year from 1990 until 2019.

Of note, total emissions across Canada have increased by 35% from 545 million tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent (Mt CO2e) in 2019 to 737 Mt CO2e in 2019.

The second graph, below, highlights the change in individual categories over time.

As shown by the two graphs, the most significant improvement in emissions comes from the category of "public electricity and heat production" - power stations. After rising between 1990 and 2000, emissions plateaued and then began to decline from 2003 onwards - driven by the retirement of coal fleets in Ontario and Alberta - and are now 27% lower than they were in 1990. There are other categories showing declines - "other manufacturing", "fugitives" - for example, but these are much smaller.

In addition, although the category of "light-duty gasoline vehicles" has shown improvement, this has been more than cancelled out by the increasing emissions from "light-duty gasoline trucks" - this doubtless reflects the consumer shift to larger vehicles, such as SUVs and light pickups. "Heavy duty diesel vehicles" and "heavy duty gasoline vehicles" have also seen major increases. Indeed, the emissions from light-duty gasoline trucks (53 Mt CO2e) and from heavy duty diesel vehicles (52 Mt CO2e) are, combined, almost equal to the those from fuel combustion in the oil and gas industry (105 Mt CO2e).

Another two categories that should be understood together are "forest land" and "harvested wood products". While forests are a significant carbon sink, the data also shows that they are only absorbing -130 Mt CO2e in 2019, compared to -200 Mt CO2e. By comparison, the level of emissions from harvested wood products has been relatively constant at around 130-140 Mt CO2e/yr. As such, Canada's forests have gone from being a net sink of -70 Mt CO2e in 1990 to a net emitter of +10 Mt CO2e in 2019.

Finally, of note is that "everything else" category in the first graph - the largest single bar on the chart - comprising around 40 individual categories, from coal mine fugitive emissions to wastewater treatment, lime production to the loss of wetlands.

This data helps to show the complexity of the problem that Canada needs to address; it encompasses the whole economy. Yes, we need to eliminate emissions from oil and gas production and continue to shift away from fossil fuel-based power generation - but we also need to decarbonize our own personal transportation footprints, develop different ways of dealing with our waste, protect environmentally important but "non-productive" land from being developed, and so on. The data also shows that Canada has fundamentally failed to address this problem over the last 29 years. While it is encouraging to see both the Federal government and various corporations set targets and goals in this area, we need to see these targets and plans becoming reality, and soon.

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