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Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions rose in 2021, but the increase was smaller than expected and overall numbers suggest Canada is making progress toward its climate goals, says federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault.

The 2023 National Inventory Report of greenhouse gas emissions, released Friday, showed Canada’s emissions in 2021 were 670 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, up by 12 MT, or 1.8 per cent, from 2020 emissions of 659 MT, the report said.

But emissions were 53 MT below 2019′s pre-COVID-19 levels, indicating government policies have started to correct what has been a steadily upward trajectory, Mr. Guilbeault said.

“Environment and Climate Change Canada predicted there would be an increase in emissions in 2021 due to 2020′s sudden COVID-19 economic slowdown that caused emissions to drop sharply,” Mr. Guilbeault said Friday in a statement.

“But emissions have stayed significantly below pre-pandemic levels. In fact, Canada’s 2021 emissions profile was 53 megatonnes smaller than it was in 2019, before the pandemic, and 62 megatonnes below 2005 levels. This means we are almost a quarter of the way to our 2030 emissions reduction goal.”

Canada files a National Inventory Report each year as part of reporting requirements under international climate treaties. The federal government’s 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan, released last year, calls for emissions to be reduced by 40 to 45 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.

The fact that emissions in 2021 remained below 2019 levels means government policies such as the phase-out of coal power are beginning to work, said Jan Gorski, director of the oil and gas program with the Pembina Institute, a think tank.

“What this shows is that the main driver of reduction is policy, and so we need more of it. Where we have it, we’re seeing reductions. Where we don’t have it, we’re not seeing reductions,” he said in an interview.

Specific to oil and gas production, Mr. Gorski said the role policies have played in reducing emissions in other sectors underscores the need for an emissions cap and other guidelines for the fossil fuel industry.

“If we have the right policy in place, we can meet climate goals,” he said. “Without it, I think it’ll be tough.”

Environmental group Nature Canada said the report fails to transparently report emissions from logging sector and instead wraps them into a broader category. The result is that the overall impact of industrial logging in Canada is portrayed as carbon neutral – a result that Nature Canada calls “implausible.”

Canada’s oil and gas sector is the largest contributor to the country’s emissions, representing 28 per cent of the overall volume in 2021.

Emissions from the sector increased by 4 per cent (about 4 MT) between 2020 and 2021, according to the report.

Mr. Guilbeault said the numbers represented a “noteworthy achievement,” given that oil and gas production has increased.

Production of crude bitumen and synthetic crude oil from oil sands operations has increased by 215 per cent since 2005. Emissions from oil and gas extraction continue to rise, from 63 MT in 2005 to 103 MT in 2021.

The sector has also seen emissions in Alberta far outstrip those in the rest of the country.

Alberta and Ontario have historically been the provinces with the largest GHG footprints, but emissions patterns have diverged since 2005.

Those in Alberta have increased by 8.6 per cent (or 20 MT) since then, primarily as a result of the expansion of oil and gas operations. In contrast, the report notes, Ontario’s emissions have decreased by 53 MT (26 per cent) since 2005, mostly due to the closure of the province’s last coal-fired electricity generation plants in 2014.

Companies that comprise about 95 per cent of oil sands production have vowed to get to net zero emissions by 2050. They are looking at an array of methods to reduce the sector’s significant environmental footprint, including pilot projects that use injections of solvents to reduce the amount of steam needed to extract oil, and studies on the viability of small modular nuclear reactors and geothermal energy. The heart of the plan is a massive carbon capture and storage network.

Emissions from the downstream petroleum refining sector remained unchanged at 13 MT in 2021, down from 20 MT in 2005.

Methane emissions have dropped by 21 per cent, or 15 MT, since 2005, though the report notes there was no significant change between 2020 and 2021.

Fugitive emissions from oil and natural gas systems contributed 37 MT to Canada’s total in 2021, though the level of pollution escaping from coal mining and oil and natural gas production has decreased by 15 MT, or 21 per cent, since 2005. From 2019 to 2020, methane emissions from the upstream oil and gas industry decreased by 9 MT (14 per cent).

Ottawa said that is due to various factors, including federal and provincial methane regulations, impacts of the pandemic, and the closure of less productive oil and gas wells.

The transport sector is the country’s second-largest source of emissions, at 22 per cent. Transport emissions increased by 9 MT, or 5 per cent, between 2020 and 2021, the report said.

The National Inventory Report comes out in April each year and has a reporting lag; this year’s report, for example, covers emissions for 2021.

In a report released in January, the Net Zero Advisory Body – an independent advisory group set up to monitor Canada’s progress toward net-zero goals – said Canada should close the data lag and launch quarterly reporting, similar to the approach taken by the European Union.

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