Canada has been talking about reducing greenhouse gas emissions since at least 1992, when it ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), an international climate treaty launched that year at the Rio Earth Summit. Since then, successive federal governments have set, and missed, multiple targets.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has vowed to reverse that pattern. The Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, which requires current and future governments to report on progress to hit Canada’s climate target – net-zero emissions by 2050 – passed in June, 2021.
In March, 2022, Ottawa released the 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan, describing it as a sector-by-sector approach for Canada to cut emissions by 40 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 and to hit the 2050 target.
The plans are meant to reduce fossil fuel emissions and slow climate change, which experts say is already transforming the planet, and to align with the Paris Agreement, a 2015 treaty that calls for holding the increase in average global temperature to well below 2 C above preindustrial levels, with 1.5 degrees as the preferred limit.
Here is a snapshot of Canada’s progress to date.
- 🛢️️ Oil and Gas
- 🌁 Methane emissions
- 🌍 Global Climate financing
- 🏭️ Carbon pricing
- ⛏️ Coal
- 🏔 Oceans and Forests
- 🚘 Cleaner transportation
- 🥤 Plastic waste
Canada's climate commitments
1. Cap emissions from the oil and gas sector
At COP26, held in Glasgow in 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated a campaign promise to impose oil-and-gas greenhouse gas emission targets. (COP stands for Conference of the Parties, annual summits for UNFCC member countries.) In July, 2022, Ottawa released a discussion paper to look at two potential options to reduce GHG emissions from the sector: creating a national cap-and-trade system or tweaking the existing industrial carbon pricing system to include criteria specific to the industry. At COP27, held in Sharm el-Sheikh in 2022, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault told The Globe and Mail that a decision on which system to implement was expected in the spring of 2023, with regulations to follow by the end of the year.
Canada’s oil and gas sector is the country’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 28 per cent of total emissions, or 189 megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2021, according to this year’s National Inventory Report on greenhouse gas emissions, released April 14. (Canada’s inventory report is released each spring for the previous year, resulting in a two-year time lag.)
When releasing the report, Ottawa said its climate policies were working, citing the fact that overall emissions were lower than in 2019 and in 2005, the benchmark year for tracking emissions, and that the increase from 2020 to 2021 was smaller than expected. (Emissions dropped sharply in 2020 as a result of an economic slowdown related to the COVID-19 pandemic.) Climate Action Network, an international network of climate-focused organizations, said that emissions from the oil and gas sector were still increasing and called for a “robust” oil and gas emissions cap to help meet Canada’s targets.
2. Reduce methane emissions
At COP26 in Glasgow, Canada pledged to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 75 per cent from 2012 levels by 2030. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas responsible for roughly 30 per cent of global warming since preindustrial times.
Scientists believe the amount of methane in the atmosphere is underestimated, so cutting methane emissions is seen as one of the quickest, cheapest ways to reduce GHG emissions.
About 95 per cent of Canada’s methane emissions come from three key sectors, according to the federal government’s 2022 Methane Strategy report: oil and gas operations (38 per cent); agriculture (30 per cent); and landfills (28 per cent). Smaller amounts come from other sectors, including transportation, residential buildings and coal mining.
That report calls for various measures to reduce the country’s methane emissions by more than 35 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030.
In 2018, Canada brought in regulations to reduce methane emissions in the oil and gas sector by 40 per cent to 45 per cent from 2012 levels by 2025. Those regulations are under review, with the goal of cutting emissions by 75 per cent by 2030 instead. In November, 2022, Ottawa released a proposed methane framework for that stepped-up target. The Calgary-based Pembina Institute called it a “comprehensive and ambitious approach” that puts Canada in lockstep with the United States in developing methane regulations to meet the Global Methane Pledge. (Under that pledge, launched at COP26, participating countries aim to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030.) Canada’s draft methane regulations are expected in 2023.
The National Inventory Report shows methane emissions climbed from 1990 until 2006 but have been falling since, hitting 91 Mt in 2021 compared with 116 Mt in 2006.
On April 20, Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Jerry DeMarco released five reports on the federal government’s sustainable development programs, including one that looked at how regulations were affecting GHG emissions.
In that report, Mr. DeMarco concluded that Environment and Climate Change Canada could not be certain whether regulations to limit methane emissions helped Canada reach its targets, and that large sources of methane emissions were unaccounted for in inventories and not covered by any existing regulations.
3. Climate financing for developing countries
The notion that richer countries should help poorer ones respond to climate change has been part of the global dialogue since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change came into effect in 1994. At COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, developed countries agreed to mobilize US$100-billion a year by 2020 to help undeveloped countries. At COP21 in Paris in 2015, with little money flowing into the pot, the goal was extended to 2025. According to a 2022 report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, climate finance hit US$83.3-billion in 2020, still well short of the goal.
At COP21, Canada announced $2.65-billion over six years for global climate action. In June, 2021, citing the interconnected crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, Ottawa doubled that commitment to $5.3-billion over the next five years.
In advance of COP27, Canada and Germany released a report outlining how developed countries are still falling short of the US$100-billion goal. At the conference, Mr. Guilbeault highlighted Canada’s $5.3-billion commitment and other initiatives, including $10-million for a project to build and improve early warning systems in developing countries.
As of December, 2022, the Climate Action Tracker, a research group, rated Canada’s climate finance commitments as “highly insufficient,” saying that while recent increases have been positive, contributions to date have been low compared with what CAT considers the country’s fair share.
4. Adopt carbon pricing system
At COP27, Mr. Guilbeault announced the Global Carbon Pricing Challenge. The Canadian-led initiative calls on all countries to adopt carbon pricing as a central part of their climate strategies, with the goal of covering 60 per cent of global emissions by 2030. Citing the World Bank, Ottawa said there are currently 68 carbon pricing systems in place across the globe that together cover 23 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Canada’s own carbon pricing system is a mix of federal and provincial policies that together cover more than 80 per cent of the country’s total emissions. In 2016, the federal government published the Pan-Canadian Approach to Pricing Carbon Pollution. It established an increasing carbon price, or tax, to $50 a tonne in 2022, setting up a federal system to serve as a “backstop” where needed. After a review in 2020, that tax is set to increase by $15 a year in 2022, until it reaches $170 a tonne in 2030.
In Canada, three Atlantic provinces are scheduled to begin paying the federal carbon tax this summer after a review determined their systems no longer met federal standards. A March report by the Parliamentary Budget Officer put the carbon pricing issue into the political spotlight, with the Opposition Conservative Party saying that the report proved the carbon tax would leave Canadians economically worse off. Mr. Guilbeault has said the PBO’s analysis ignores potential gains from climate change investments.
A 2021 review by the Canadian Climate Institute, commissioned by the federal government, recommended that the provincial, federal and territorial governments work toward a common standard.
5. Phase out coal
Coal is both the single biggest source of CO2 emissions from energy and the single biggest source of electricity generation worldwide, according to the International Energy Agency, meaning there is no way to avoid the worst effects of climate change without phasing out coal power. Canada has had that goal in mind since at least 2017, when Canada and Britain launched the Powering Past Coal Alliance at COP23 in Bonn, Germany. The PPCA has grown to 168 members, and remains focused on phasing out coal even as the war in Ukraine and the resulting energy crisis have pushed back coal-fired plant closings in several countries, including Germany and Italy. Canada’s regulations to phase out traditional coal-fired electricity by 2030 were announced in 2018.
In 2005, coal generated about 16 per cent of electricity in Canada; it now accounts for about 9 per cent. According to the National Inventory Report, phasing out coal-fired electricity was the main factor in reducing electricity sector emissions by 64 Mt, or 52 per cent, between 2005 and 2021. In his spring report on greenhouse gas regulations, Mr. DeMarco said federal regulations designed to eliminate coal were on track.
Canada continues to mine and export coal. In 2022, the federal government blocked a proposed coal mine in Alberta. Vancouver-based mining firm Teck Resources Ltd., fending off a takeover bid, has proposed spinning off its metallurgical coal assets into a new company.
Internationally, kicking the coal habit is an uphill battle, with a recent Group of Seven summit wrapping up without an agreement to act on Canada’s push to phase out coal-fired electricity.
6. Scale up action on oceans, forests and nature-based climate solutions
Increasingly, biodiversity and climate change are seen as two sides of the same coin, with research showing, for example, how wetlands can mitigate flooding or how climate change can threaten plants or animals. In 2015, Canada announced its 2020 Biodiversity Goals and Targets for Canada, which called for protecting at least 17 per cent of terrestrial areas and inland water, and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, by 2020.
With nature on the line, delegates head to Montreal for COP15 to negotiate landmark global biodiversity agreement
In 2019, campaigning for a second term, Mr. Trudeau said a Liberal government would protect 25 per cent of land and 25 per cent of Canada’s oceans by 2025, and aim for 30 per cent of each by 2030.
Then, at COP15, a United Nations biodiversity summit held in Montreal in December, delegates reached a historic deal that included the “30-by-30″ target, which calls for conserving 30 per cent of the planet by 2030.
In 2021, the federal government also launched 2 Billion Trees, a program to plant that number of trees over the following decade.
As of the end of 2021, Canada had conserved 13.5 per cent of its terrestrial area (land and freshwater) and 13.9 per cent of its marine territory.
The federal government has invested in Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas and new Marine Protected Areas in pursuit of the 30-by-30 target. Indigenous groups have proposed or unilaterally declared additional IPCAs and new MPAs are also under discussion.
The global biodiversity framework announced at COP15 also includes a restoration target that calls for recovering 30 per cent of lands that have been previously degraded or converted. Ottawa has yet to say how it plans to hit that target, but a recent study suggested which parts of the country should be a priority.
The 2 Billion Trees program had a slow start.
In his spring report on forests and climate change, Mr. DeMarco said the program would not meet its objectives without major changes. The program nearly met its goal to plant 30 million trees in 2021, its first year, but fell well short of its second-year target, Mr. DeMarco said in his report, adding that in the best-case scenario, after two years the program would reach only 2.3 per cent of its overall goal.
Mr. DeMarco also released two reports on species at risk that found Ottawa is falling short in protecting endangered plants, birds and animals.
7. Cleaner transportation
The 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan, released in 2022, included a host of transport-related programs and initiatives, including $1.7-billion to extend the Incentives for Zero-Emission Vehicles Program, or iZEV, which provides subsidies of up to $5,000 to lease or buy approved electric vehicles. In December, federal Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra announced a transportation plan that called for 100 per cent of light-duty vehicle sales to be zero-emission by 2035, with mandatory targets of at least 20 per cent of all new light-duty vehicle sales by 2026 and at least 60 per cent by 2030. The plan also included targets for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles to kick in between 2030 and 2040.
Ottawa says it has taken significant steps to encourage the shift toward electric vehicles, including the iZEV program and spending $450-million since 2016 to support research and development for EV charging and refuelling stations across Canada. It released proposed ZEV sales regulations in December.
The federal government has also announced Clean Fuel Regulations, which were first promised in 2016 and released in 2022. Under the regulations, gasoline and diesel providers will have to gradually reduce the carbon intensity – or the amount of pollution – in the fuels they sell by 15 per cent below 2016 levels by 2030.
In his spring report on greenhouse gas emissions, Mr. DeMarco said the government was too slow in developing clean fuel regulations, jeopardizing the pace of Canada’s emission reductions.
8. End plastic waste
Unlike, say, oil and gas, transportation or the building sector – the top three greenhouse gas emitting sectors in Canada – plastics isn’t tracked by GHG emissions. But plastic policy initiatives have been a high-profile focus for the federal Liberals and are tied to other goals related to biodiversity and ocean health. Those initiatives date back to at least to 2018, when the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment published a zero plastic waste strategy. It stated plastic waste was harming habitat, fisheries and wildlife, resulting in $13-billion worth of environmental damage every year and that, globally, only about 14 per cent of plastic was being collected for recycling. The report also flagged the potential for better plastics management to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Also in 2018, Canada put forward the Ocean Plastics Charter, a campaign to reduce plastic litter in the world’s oceans, and launched a consultation process on how to reduce plastic waste.
Since then, Canada has rolled out several plastics initiatives and regulations, including plans for plastic packaging to contain at least 50-per-cent recycled content by 2030.
As of December, 2022, regulations prohibit the import, manufacture and sale in Canada of so-called single-use plastics such as cutlery, straws and stir sticks. That regulation has been challenged in court, with intervenors including the Alberta provincial government.
Emissions from solid and liquid waste treatment and disposal accounted for 21 Mt, or 3.1 per cent, of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2021, according to the National Inventory Report.
We will continue to update the climate pledge tracker as the government announces new commitments, misses timelines or completes pledges.
We asked a panel of experts across the environmental field to weigh in on the status of each pledge: Bruce Lourie, president of the Ivey Foundation, a charitable foundation focused on Canada’s transition to a net-zero economy; Simon Dyer, deputy executive director of the Pembina Institute, a clean energy think tank; and Kathryn Harrison, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.