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Greenhouse Gas Emissions: How is Canada Doing?


To evaluate Canada’s performance vis à vis greenhouse gases there are several things to consider:  What is the current magnitude, and the trend in emissions today?  What are the sources of those emissions, and how might emissions change in coming decades?  How does the expected trend in emissions compare with the commitment made by Canada as a party to the Paris Agreement?  How does the expected trend in emissions compare to what Canada would need to achieve if it was to do its fair share of emissions reduction to keep the world within a 1.5oC increase in average temperature?

Canada has its geese, but it also has its industry.  How are we doing on GHG emissions?
© Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press.

I am an environmental scientist.  I am interested in these questions because I care about the environment and believe that there is now more than sufficient information available to establish that humanity faces an existential problem in climate change that could threaten our civilization, if not our persistence as a species.  In the absence of a benevolent world dictator, we have relatively weak mechanisms to drive the global cooperation that seems needed as the only feasible way of wrestling climate change to the mat.  I am not a rabid greenie (at least, I don’t think so), and I do understand that countries only thrive when they have economies that provide jobs and wealth (they need a few other things besides!).  Canada has a very poor record on climate so far, and our resource-intensive economy poses problems for doing better.  In particular, we have encouraged development of a major industry extracting bitumen from tar sands and turning it into something that can be refined into useful fuels.

Closely related questions that should be investigated therefore concern the production of bitumen from the Alberta tar sands, because this activity is the largest source of human-caused GHG emissions in Canada.  Industry and government projections all call for production to rise significantly from its current level, adding to GHG emissions.  A subsidiary set of questions concern the capacity of pipelines to transport bitumen and oil from Alberta, the rail transport capacity which supplements this, and whether there is a shortage of capacity that is curtailing the expansion of this industry.

Beyond the facts that answers to such questions should provide, there are questions about the responsibility that Canada has to reduce GHG emissions and to market its fossil fuel resources.  Although it may seem backwards, I will focus on these questions about responsibilities, after I set out current oil production and GHG emissions data.

Canada’s Oil Industry

Canada is a net exporter of oil, and oil production is a significant part of our economy.  According to Natural Resources Canada, Canada produced 4.2 MMb/d (million barrels per day), exported 3.3 MMb/d, and imported 0.8 MMb/d of crude oil in 2017. Geography, lack of refining capacity, and lack of west-to-east pipelines force us to import some oil from other countries (61% from the USA, 12% from Saudi Arabia, remainder from other countries in 2017).  On these numbers, Canada consumes about 1.7 MMb/d of oil.

The Suncor refinery near Edmonton, just one tiny part of Canada’s tar sands infrastructure.  Photo © Jason Franson/Canadian Press

Alberta was responsible for 80.7% of oil production in Canada in 2017; this breaks down as 64% tar sands bitumen, and 17% light and tight oil.  Of the 2.7 MMb/d bitumen produced, 43% (1.16 MMb/d) was upgraded in Alberta, turning it into ‘synthetic crude’.  The remainder was mixed with diluent (gas condensates) to permit it to flow before export.  This ‘diluted bitumen’ is called ‘dilbit’.  (Some diluent is mined in western Canada, but 430,000 b/d of diluent was imported from the US in 2017, shipped to Alberta, and added to the bitumen, meaning that some pipeline capacity is used to transport diluent.)

The oil reserves represented by the tar sands are prodigious, 168 billion barrels or 10% of global reserves, and third largest reserves in the world.  Plans by the industry, supported by Alberta and the Federal government of Canada, are for significant expansion of the rate of extraction from the tar sands.  While earlier projections spoke in terms of three-fold increases, expectations by the industry have moderated over the last several years.  This has chiefly been because of the great increase in oil production worldwide (so-called tight oil) due to fracking technologies.  This cheaper to produce oil coupled with a soft global economy since 2008 has kept prices (and excess demand) lower than they might have been, curtailing expansion in the very costly to produce tar sands.  Lack of new capital for other reasons may also have tempered optimism.  Still, CAPP, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, projects in its 2018 Crude Oil Forecast, that total Canadian production will be 5.6 MMb/d in 2035, achieved almost entirely by an increase of 1.55 MMb/d to 4.2 MMb/d from the tar sands.  That is a 58% increase in tar sands production over 18 years.  (CAPP projects that production in eastern Canada will decline by 150,000 b/d, while that of conventional oil in western Canada will increase by 200,000 b/d.)

Needless to say, oil production, particularly in Alberta, is a significant portion of the economy.  Again, according to Natural Resources Canada, government revenues from the energy sector were $10.3 billion in 2016, and the industry directly employed 276,000 people in 2017.  While the energy sector, directly and indirectly, represented about 10.6% or $213 billion of Canada’s 2017 GDP, the energy sector is much more than the oil production sector.  The oil industry yielded about 2.6% or $52.2 billion of GDP.  Some 80% of this is produced in Alberta, mostly from the tar sands.

So, a major industry, centered on the Athabasca tar sands, and potentially of growing importance, but still only 2.6% of our economy.  What about GHG emissions?  Oil production is a messy business, and extraction of bitumen from tar sands is particularly challenging, whether shallow deposits are being extracted by open-pit mining, or deeper deposits are being extracted in situ, via the injection of high-pressure steam (with additives) to warm and liquify the bitumen which can then be pumped from the well.  There are important water and land pollution issues associated with such operations that should not be ignored when evaluating this industry.  There are other forms of air pollution also, but emissions of greenhouse gases are particularly important.  The extraction of bitumen is an energetically demanding task.  Upgrading to produce synthetic crude requires further energy, and oil does not flow through pipelines without being pushed.

Canada’s GHG emissions

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada’s National Inventory Report issued in April 2018, Canada emitted 704 MtCO2eq of greenhouse gases in 2016.  (MtCO2eq or metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent is a way of combining emissions of all greenhouse gases as a single entity, by relating tonnes of each gas to the equivalent amount of CO2.)  In addition to CO2 itself, our emissions include methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3).  The 704 MtCO2eq represent a 3.8% reduction from levels in 2005.  I mention this because Canada committed, in 2010, at the Copenhagen climate conference, to reduce its emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 – we managed to chip away 3.8%, just 13.2% to go.  (Needless to say, Canada long ago stopped trying to meet this goal (if it ever intended to do so).)  Further context for these numbers is provided by the 2018 report of the Global Carbon Project (GCP), released on 5th December to be available for the Poland climate conference.  As reported in a Commentary by Christine Figueres and colleagues in Nature, 6th December, global CO2 emissions rose 1.6% from 2016 to 2017, and are expected to increase a further 2% in 2018.  These increases followed a plateau during 2014-16 when many people believed the world had turned a corner.  Global emissions are dominated by emissions from China (27%), the USA (15%), and India (7%), all of which increased emissions between 2016 and 2018.  In the USA, early estimates show emissions jumped 3.4% in 2018; Chinese emissions are expected to increase 4.7% and Indian emissions 6.3%.  Canadian emissions jumped 2.6% between 2016 and 2017.  In other words, the world is not yet beginning to reduce GHG emissions, largely because economic growth is more than sufficient to use all the carbon-neutral energy generated by wind and solar projects and still require increased use of fossil fuels.

Canada’s GHG emissions by economic sector (2016 data).  Of the 26% due to oil and gas industry, 10.2% are due to tar sands production.  Image from Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Of 2016’s Canadian emissions, 183 MtCO2eq were due to the oil and gas industry.  Of these emissions, 72 MtCO2eq were due to the tar sands operation (not including some costs in upgrading, and the costs for transportation).  The oil and gas sector was the largest contributor, just ahead of transportation (173 MtCO2eq) and heavy industry (75 MtCO2eq).  Emissions from all components of our economy, except tar sands mining, have been falling in recent years.  Tar sands production accounts for more than 10% of GHG emissions in 2016.  This proportion will continue to rise, especially if production increases at the rate expected by CAPP and others.

What are Canadians’ responsibilities?

And so to responsibilities.  The Canadian oil industry and its governmental supporters are quick to highlight the fact that Canada’s GHG emissions are less than 2% of the global total, and tar sands mining accounts for just 10% of that.  Why should anyone care about 0.2% of the emissions that are causing climate change?  Looking after the Canadian economy is far more important than that.

We may be contributing less than 2% of the total, but that still leaves Canada the 10th largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet (9th largest if you don’t think ‘international shipping’ is a ‘country’).  We are well behind China (29%) and the USA (14%), but not far behind Germany, Iran or South Korea.  If we look at emissions per capita, Canada’s relatively small population puts us 9th overall, but 3rd among developed countries at 15.5 tCO2eq/capita, compared with the USA (16.1) and Australia (18.6 – all 2015 figures).  (The other six top emitters per capita are all small, low-population, middle eastern states.)  This is not a beauty contest, so being high on the list is definitely not a good thing.  Canada should be trying very hard to reduce its GHG emissions, and to date we have been making only very modest progress.  All the time, progress made is being chipped away at by a tar sands industry that continues to grow.

Why do I say Canada should be ‘trying very hard’?  I watched in despair as Canada failed to come close to its Kyoto target for GHG emissions and eventually withdrew from that treaty.  We have now given up on our commitment made under the Copenhagen Accord.  Are we going to fail a third time with our 2030 target under the Paris Agreement?  At present, it looks like we might.

In its Nationally Determined Commitment (NDC) submitted to UNFCCC under the Paris Agreement, Canada committed to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030” and to also work to reduce emissions of black carbon, a relatively short-lived pollutant which has particular importance in the Arctic.  The NDC specifies 523 MtCO2eq as its target, however using up-to-date figures that number should be revised downward to 512 MtCO2eq (the 2018 NIR specifies Canada’s 2005 emissions as 732 MtCO2eq).  Canada’s commitment was calculated to be a reasonable effort for this nation to help achieve the stated Paris Agreement goal: “to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit that increase to below 1.5 degrees”.  There are two questions to consider here:  How is Canada doing in terms of its stated 2030 target?  And is that target a fair effort by Canada to help limit the global average temperature to well below 2OC?

The graph included in the NDC submission is not very encouraging.  It shows a nearly horizontal line projecting emissions out to 2030 if Canada did nothing new after 2015, and an encouragingly downward trending blue line of emissions assuming adoption of all the mitigation measures included in the Pan Canadian Framework in December 2016.  What?  You don’t remember the Pan Canadian Framework?  It includes a carbon tax in all provinces and a number of measures applied to large emitters such as the oil industry.  There’s been a few delays and backward marches (thank you Premier Doug Ford) since then, so this blue line is not necessarily the trend we are following.  And, worse than that, the blue line ends at 567 MtCO2eq in 2030.  There is a gap to be filled by other measures that are likely to develop, from where is not sure.  In other words, Canada has a plan in place that is guaranteed to fail, unless something unexpected happens.  In baseball, three strikes and you’re out, but this is not baseball.

Figure 1 from Canada’s NDC Report to UNFCCC.  Titled Pathway to Canada’s 2030 target, it’s a pathway that does not get there.  Image © Environment and Climate Change Canada.

No wonder Climate Action Tracker judged Canada’s NDC to be Highly insufficient when it was first submitted to UNFCCC.  Even if Canada was to hit its 2030 target, Canada has not made a commitment sufficiently strong to represent Canada’s fair share of the reductions in emissions needed to achieve a climate warming of less than 2oC.  According to Climate Action Tracker, if all countries responded as modestly as Canada, the world will head towards a 3o– 4oC average warming.  If you believe, as I do, that Canada has a moral responsibility to do at least its fair share of emissions reductions, then you must find both our stated commitment – the NDC – and our plans for achieving it to be disappointingly underwhelming.  So much for being a “leader on climate”.  Why do I think Canada has a responsibility to do better?  Because I believe that climate change is an existential threat to civilization, and if countries are not willing to do their fair share, especially wealthy countries that can afford a tiny bit of belt tightening, what hope do we have for the world?  (And to those who say, ‘why should we try when others are not’, I say, ‘someone has to lead, and wouldn’t it be better, when our descendants look back in 50 years’ time or so, to be one of the leaders instead of a laggard who dragged the world down?’.)

Indeed, I maintain there is reason to be very concerned about Canada’s performance on GHG emissions because recent political developments seem to be building very strong resistance from some sectors to core components of the Federal plan for emissions mitigation.  I include here the non-thinking backward goosestep performed by Doug Ford’s new Ontario government on taking office, cancelling a carbon cap-and-trade program already in place and working, cancelling several programs designed to encourage a shift away from our carbon-intensive lifestyle, and announcing a plan to oppose the Federal carbon tax in the courts as soon as it is implemented next year.  This from a government that has yet to announce anything substantive that it claims it will put in place instead.  Alberta’s cap on emissions from the tar sands, originally to be put in place next year, has now been deferred till after the Alberta election, and its disappearance after that seems quite likely, no matter who gets elected.  I fear Canadians are not behaving responsibly when it comes to climate change.

Right-of-center politicians in Canada are finding opposition to the carbon tax to be a reliable way to fire up their base.  Image © Brian Gable/Globe and Mail.

And this brings us back to the tar sands.  Some in the industry, in Alberta, and in the Federal government seem to be demanding that Canadians develop an individual moral obligation to support the expansion of production in the tar sands.  Nightly on TV, I see happy little stick figures who claim to be enjoying all the benefits that Alberta’s tar sands industry is bringing to us.  But let’s think a bit more deeply.

Yes, it is true that oil production is a major portion of Alberta’s economy.  Its also true that Alberta governments grew fat and lazy, living off the revenues from that oil industry over many years, when they could have been building a sovereign wealth fund, as did Norway very successfully.  Obviously, under such circumstances there will be pain in Alberta if tar sands production ceases to grow, or even shrinks, and that pain will be shared, to an extent, across Canada.  But get a grip; total collapse of the oil industry in Canada represents just a 2.6% loss to our economy, and nobody is suggesting the imminent collapse of the industry.  Furthermore, I dispute that just because corporations built a production industry without taking sufficient care to ensure that there would be capacity to refine, or ship the product, and just because a succession of governments endorsed those corporate plans, advocated for them, and provided substantial subsidies to allow them to proceed (subsidies that continue to be paid, while subsidies for carbon-neutral energy production are scarce), I should be somehow responsible for helping this industry succeed.  What happened to the idea of free markets?  It is emphatically not my problem, even if a downturn in Alberta will hurt me a little bit.  There are lessons in Alberta’s fossil fuel industry and they are not lessons about the need for the nation to ensure that the industry can grow as it wants, to hell with everything else.  They are lessons about humility, and responsibility of industry to plan properly.

I also believe that, given that there is sufficient pipeline capacity to transport oil currently being produced, there is no justification to ease environmental requirements, or the requirement that industry consult appropriately with First Nations and other groups whose lives would be impacted by new pipelines, simply to get pipelines built quickly.  It is nobody’s fault except the oil industry that they find themselves constrained by their ability to get their product to market.  And, where is it written that it is every industry’s right to expand as much as it wants?  Do I admit that some of the opposition to pipelines is politically motivated?  Yes, of course it is?  But Canadians have a right to their own political views, and many of us have not been persuaded that pipelines carrying dilbit are an important part of our future.  In fact, there are strong reasons for arguing that continued expansion of tar sands production is an inappropriate direction for Canada’s economy to move in.

The tar sands currently emit 72 MtCO2eq of greenhouse gases.  If their production increases as CAPP and others expect, and if the carbon intensity of the product remains the same, they will emit 58% more greenhouse gases than now, or 114 MtCO2eq, by 2035.  (If Alberta’s emissions cap is not abandoned, growth will be constrained to limit emissions to 100MtCO2eq; if carbon intensity of tar sands production should decrease it might remain possible to increase production as planned and still keep emissions below 100MtCO2eq.)  Either way, ramped up production in the tar sands makes reducing total Canadian emissions way more difficult than otherwise.

David Hughes considered this issue in his 2018 Canada’s Energy OutlookUsing the data on production trends from the National Energy Board, and data on emissions from Environment and Climate Change Canada, he showed a major squeeze on other sectors of Canada’s economy would be needed.  Needed, that is, if we decide to permit growth in the tar sands and also achieve our NDC targets under the Paris Agreement.

Figure 132 from Canada’s Energy Outlook, 2018, by David Hughes, shows the restrictions that could be imposed on the rest of Canada’s economy if the expansion in the oil and gas sector (almost entirely in the tar sands), as anticipated by the National Energy Board is permitted to go ahead.  Image © CCPA.

If the growth permitted under Alberta’s emissions cap is permitted, as National Energy Board assumes, and if Canada continues to strive to honor its commitment under the Paris Agreement, all non-oil and gas components of the economy must reduce emissions a whopping 49% from 2015 levels by 2030, and an even more whopping 85% by 2040.  Being a retired academic who does not need to concern himself directly with the economic well-being of Canada’s agriculture, construction, heavy industry, transportation or any other economic sector, I can be dispassionate, but does anyone for one second believe all these sectors of the economy will meekly downscale (or invest very heavily in an effort to decarbonize) while the tar sands are permitted to expand their emissions by 100 MtCO2eq?  If anyone does believe this, I have some bridges for sale you may be interested in.

Fact is, Canada is not going to permit the anticipated growth in tar sands production, or Canada is going to fail dismally, yet again, on the world stage and remain a climate pariah.  Let’s assume, for one moment, that Canada behaves rationally (no I have not been smoking dope, even if it seems I have), and puts the well-being of 97.5% of its economy, and the well-being of our shared environment, ahead of that of tar sands bitumen production.  Albertans, if anyone there is reading this, bear with me a moment – I have nothing against Alberta, the west, the oil industry, or even country music, I’m just trying to think logically about what is best for Canada.  If it is simply not going to be politically possible for tar sands production to grow as planned, then we should be asking questions like:  Do we really need more pipelines?  Is there something fundamentally wrong with producing bitumen at the present-day rate over the next several decades (so long as the price makes any production worthwhile), providing decent jobs and making decent profits?  And, wait for it, wouldn’t it be a good idea to leave some of this stuff in the ground (after all, maybe we will discover less polluting ways of recovering it, and uses more valuable than simply exporting it for others to burn)?  Its not going to disappear if we leave it in the ground for the future.

That’s enough about my views on this topic.  Every Canadian is entitled to develop his/her own views.  All I ask is that perspectives be based on the same set of facts:  We produce a lot of dilbit and synthetic crude from the tar sands (2.7 MMb/d in 2017).  That economic activity is particularly polluting, so while it represents just 2.6% of our economy, it is responsible for more than 10% of our greenhouse gas emissions.  The industry, with Provincial and Federal government encouragement and support (those subsidies), wants to increase production 58% by 2035.  Doing this would make it virtually impossible for Canada to honor its international commitments concerning climate change, the existential problem facing humanity.  Do we produce fossil fuel and to hell with the future, or do we try to steer a path for Canada and the world towards a sane future with a climate conducive to continuation of human civilization.  Along the way, are additional pipelines so necessary that they must be built no matter what people along the path think?  (On that issue, David Hughes has some important things to say in Canada’s Energy Outlook, and I have blogged about the topic in the past.).

Construction on the Trans-Mountain pipeline expansion.  Sure there are jobs here, but are new pipelines really needed, or would there be better ways to use these construction skills?
© Kinder Morgan.