Bending the Curve? Emissions in Canada and Elsewhere

Chris Hatch
Chris Hatch - In a weekly climate newsletter, climate correspondent Chris Hatch sorts through the kaleidoscope of news, ideas, politics and culture to figure out what's working in the race against climate change.
April 16th, 2021

Bending the curve?

It was a big week. The Conservatives’ long-awaited climate plan is getting a lot of attention. But most Canadians probably didn’t notice that it was also report card week.

The annual National Inventory Report reveals how we’re actually doing in the race to cut climate pollution. It barely registered in the national media. No deep dives into the two runaway sectors — oil and gas and transportation — that make up half of Canada’s emissions and overwhelm all progress elsewhere.

The upshot is Canada’s climate pollution is still heading in the wrong direction. It went up. Again. For the third year in a row.

It didn’t go up a lot, but emissions certainly didn’t go down. And they need to go down by more than seven per cent every year to have any chance of staying under the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Agreement.

You’ll remember that was the same Paris meeting where newly minted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised that “Canada is back.” Our emissions are up seven million tonnes since then.

The best spin anyone can muster is that things could have been worse. Climate pollution was projected to be higher. Our environment minister vows this will be the last year we’ll see increases. “We will see year-on-year reductions — absolute reductions — starting in 2020, through to 2030,” Jonathan Wilkinson told the Globe and Mail.

Of course, the climate is unmoved by counter-factual arguments. Temperatures and ocean acidification only respond to the actual greenhouse gases we pump out.

If you zoom out and look at Canada’s emissions curve over recent years, you’ll see that it basically looks like not a curve at all. It’s a long, bumbling, relatively flat line. The latest numbers put us at the same level as 2005, the baseline year we grade ourselves against. No indication yet of any bend towards the dramatic cuts needed to keep global heating in check.

The trajectory is obstinately refusing to change despite some big cuts in specific sectors. Electricity has been a major success, down 56 megatonnes since 2005. That's mostly because Ontario closed its coal plants and Alberta has been driving coal out of its electricity supply surprisingly quickly.

So, where is all this climate pollution coming from?

The Spotlight

The National Inventory Report is the most recent data we get, but it always has a time lag — it gives us numbers up to 2019, so it doesn’t cover the effects of the pandemic. Here’s what it tells us:

Fossil fuels are the big problem

Carbon dioxide is by far the biggest contributor to Canadian emissions, accounting for 80 per cent of total emissions. “The majority of CO2 emissions in Canada result from the combustion of fossil fuels.”

Two sectors are killing us

Two sectors really stand out as runaway problems: the oil and gas industry and the burning of fossil fuels like gasoline in vehicles. These two sources overwhelm everything else. And their emissions are growing rapidly.

Credit to Keith Stewart for creating the clearest chart I’ve seen.


Oil and gas and transportation are half of Canada’s total emissions, and they’ve eaten up all the progress from sectors like electricity. Seventy per cent of the transportation problem is from vehicles on roads.

Alberta’s emissions are surging

Ontario and Alberta were historically the biggest polluters. But Ontario made big gains by phasing out its coal plants, down 42 megatonnes since 2005. Alberta is up 40 megatonnes, driven by pollution from the oilsands.

Andrew Leach has the prettiest chart. Each tower is one province/region, showing emissions from 1990 to 2019. Even Ontario, Quebec and B.C. show worrying upswings.



You’ll notice there’s also a handy black horizontal line on each tower. That shows the level of cuts Canada has currently pledged to achieve by 2030. Only the Atlantic provinces look at all promising.

Our forests are in trouble

It is incredibly difficult to get a handle on what’s going on in Canada’s forests. The National Inventory Report acknowledges they were net emitters of carbon in 2019 and have been for the last several years. But the convoluted systems the government uses to report on forests, disease, fires and logging make it impossible for a layperson to decipher the big picture and grasp the scale of the problem.

Thankfully, Barry SaxifrageNational Observer’s resident chart lover, has done the legwork. Here’s a peek at his upcoming article looking at the “net flux” between carbon absorbed by our forests versus carbon emitted:



For a deeper journey into the forests, you could start here or here. Very few reporters have been able to make sense of Canada’s tortured forest accounting; those that make the effort come to similar conclusions.

There are good reasons to think we can start to bend our emissions curve going forward (at least on fossil fuels — forest health is much tougher). Very serious people think very highly of the strengthened climate plan announced in December. Our current environment minister is probably the best climate czar we’ve ever had. International analysts describe Canada’s approach as both “visionary and rational.”

But what’s clear today is that our actual trajectory is nowhere near our stated ambitions. And our stated ambitions are nowhere near what’s required.

And it’s going to take some time before we really know if we’re making progress. By this time next year, we’ll get numbers for 2020, which will be torqued by the pandemic. Only in 2023 will we get another clean read on Canada’s emissions.

One thing we can say is, according to the only measure that matters, Canada’s biggest successes have come from getting coal out of the electricity sector. And those happened when the government stepped in and unapologetically intervened to drive change. In Ontario, the provincial government closed down coal plants. Alberta set clear direction and implemented pricing systems designed to run coal plants off the grid. We need more bright lines like that — forceful policy on transportation that mandates clean buses, cars and other vehicles. Building codes that end the burning of natural gas in buildings.

Now let’s look at some of the news of the week...

The Roundup

Retooling the Conservative Party

We finally got a look at the federal Conservatives’ climate plan. For everyone not expecting much, it was a bit of a shocker: Erin O’Toole basically threw in the towel in the fight against carbon pricing. His plan would set a lower price than the Liberals’ and aim to make up the difference with regulations like a mandate for electric vehicle sales (something the Liberals have resisted) and a modified clean fuel standard (a policy the Conservatives were vilifying just days ago).

It will be fascinating to see what happens next inside the conservative movement. The last conservative leader to make a bold break from anti-climate orthodoxy didn’t last long. We got Doug Ford instead.

Policy wonks generally agree that O’Toole has actually come up with a pretty serious plan, backed by modelling that shows it would reduce emissions in line with Canada’s current (still woefully “insufficient”) international promises.

It says alot about where we’re at that just having a plan is treated as something remarkable. Here’s to the day we get to the stage of being unimpressed by anything other than actual, remarkable reductions in climate pollution.

Among the commentariat, Max Fawcett sees O’Toole’s plan as “the worst of both worlds.” He figures conservative activists will be furious (they already are) while climate voters won’t be impressed. Adam Radwanski gives O’Toole more credit. Others, including Justin Trudeau’s former consigliere, think it demonstrates a positive fundamental shift in Canadian politics.

Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives plan to wrestle directly with Canada’s biggest emitter — the oil and gas industry. A new study by Angela Carter and Truzaar Dordi describes this as operating with “one eye shut.”


“No small player” in global emissions

Their study shows Canada expects to produce more oil and gas in 2050 than we do today. That means that with just 0.5 per cent of the world’s population, Canada would eat up 16 per cent of the world’s remaining carbon budget. “Canada is no small player,” Carter told CP’s Bob Weber.

The authors also dug into the outsized influence of the oil and gas lobby, finding the federal government met with oil lobbyists more than 4.5 times per working day — 1,224 times over the past year.

In related news this week, The Breach published a series of documents showing the level of co-ordination between Natural Resources Canada and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers during the pandemic. And Environmental Defence tallied up $18 billion in federal support to the oil and gas sector during the same period.

Another investor ditches the oilsands

The National Inventory Report showed greenhouse gases from the oilsands are about as high as the carbon pollution from the entire province of Quebec. The New York state pension fund has now decided seven oilsands companies will be restricted from investment because they aren’t “prepared for the transition to a low-carbon economy.” The companies include Imperial Oil (Exxon Canada), Husky, Cenovus and Canadian Natural Resources.


Ending export finance for fossil fuels

Seven European countries, including Germany, France and the U.K., announced they will no longer support coal, oil or gas infrastructure abroad. The countries are playing catch-up with the European Investment Bank — the world’s largest development bank.

This is a big issue for Canada where our agency, Export Development Canada, has come under fire for providing over $13 billion to support oil and gas companies each year. “As a result, Canada ranks second highest among G20 countries in total public financing of fossil fuels.” (Despite its name, EDC also backs projects such as pipelines within Canada that are too risky for private lenders).

New Zealand requires financial disclosure

New Zealand is the first country in the world to introduce legislation requiring financial firms like banks, investment managers and insurers to report risks of climate change on their businesses. Jacinda Ardern’s government hopped ahead of the U.K., which intends to mandate disclosures by 2025 using the framework catalyzed by Canadian economist Mark Carney.

Net-zero definitions are a mess in Canada

Jeffery Jones made a valiant effort to decipher climate commitments by Canadian companies, ultimately concluding they’re “all over the map.”

“Despite the fact the net zero club is growing fast — as banks, oil producers, airlines ... sign on in the hopes of signalling they care about climate change — there are no enforced standards on what actually constitutes net zero. To have real impact, these targets must be scientifically based and consistent.”

France’s loi climat et résilience

The French National Assembly passed its new climate bill, which garnered attention around the world for banning domestic flights that can be done by high-speed train in less than two and a half hours.

The law has several other important sections. One that really stands out is the ban on fossil fuel advertisements.

Two more votes are required for it to become law. It is expected to pass, in which case it will also ban the sale of gas-powered cars by 2030 and create “low-emission zones” in French cities. Francophones can zoom in sur 12 mesures clés ici.

Buildup to Biden’s climate summit

Canada has indicated it will adopt a stronger target for carbon cuts in time for Joe Biden’s leaders’ summit next week. An impressive list of U.S. businesses including Apple, Walmart and McDonald’s (strange world climate has wrought) are calling on the Biden administration to cut emissions in half by the end of the decade.

Journalists are gearing up as well.


As Scientific American declared, “Journalism should reflect what science says: the climate emergency is here… This idea is not a journalistic fancy. We are on solid scientific ground.”

And here’s veteran climate reporter Jeff Goodell’s take on the Biden presidency for Rolling Stone, “Our last best chance.”

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[Top: In a weekly climate newsletter, climate correspondent Chris Hatch sorts through the kaleidoscope of news, ideas, politics and culture to figure out what's working in the race against climate change.]