The state of the country’s economy is under a constant microscope. Statistics Canada regularly publishes a range of detailed data on everything from GDP and inflation to employment and exports. We don’t find out about an economy teetering on the edge of recession years after it happened.
Yet this is exactly the case with the volume of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, a much bigger challenge than today’s concerns of economic growth or rising prices.
When it comes to climate, one key problem is out-of-date data.
Official emissions statistics, filed to the United Nations every April, are high quality but lack immediate usefulness. The numbers that land this April will report on 2021 – 16 months old when published. Right now, the most recent official figures are from 2020, well more than two years ago. If Canada’s going off track on the road to 2030, or if the country set short-term targets, the official numbers are not the best help.
Getting a much better handle on climate-heating emissions – and informing a broad public debate about progress, or lack thereof, in cutting GHGs – will become crucial during this decade. Canada’s annual emissions have been north of 700 megatonnes for two decades and the goal is to slash that figure to 445 MT in less than a decade, a cut of 40 per cent from the 2005 level of 741 MT.
The reality of the effort needed to cut emissions will soon become obvious. There’s been a lot of talk of policies such as the carbon tax, since the federal Liberals passed the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act in 2018, but it is really only now that the impact will be felt. The carbon tax on a litre of gasoline rises to 14 cents on April 1. Next year it’ll be 18 cents.
Ottawa needs to do more to communicate the big picture and details of lowering emissions to Canadians on a regular basis. That starts with relevant data, available as soon as possible – like the work Statscan does to measure the economy.
The emissions reporting system, which will always be a valuable gold standard, is rooted in the 1990s, when the world signed on to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Rich countries pledged to report emissions annually. Canada has done so since 1996. The system is designed to be robust and clear, where countries show their work and produce figures that are comparable. It’s a lot of math and some guesswork – trying to measure what’s largely invisible to the eye.
The need for closer-to-live data was highlighted by Ottawa’s Net-Zero Advisory Body earlier this year. It called on the Liberals to create a public and “easily understood” emissions dashboard, with detailed quarterly data. The group also wants Ottawa to establish an independent group, like the Canadian Institute for Health Information, by mid-2024 to work on data and modelling.
We hear of inflation and GDP all the time, it’s in the news. It should be the same with emissions. The Rhodium Group, a research think tank in New York, in January issued preliminary estimates of emissions in the United States last year – up 1.3 per cent – and it garnered wide coverage. The European Union puts out quarterly data. The International Energy Agency each winter estimates emissions from energy use for the previous year and the Canadian Climate Institute is working on detailed early estimates, planning to publish each fall for the previous year.
Such estimates do not replace official UN data. But for what they will lack in perfect exactness, they will deliver value in timeliness. A quarterly report that shows rising emissions can serve as an alarm bell – much more so than the pending UN numbers this April, when results for 2021 will show an increase from the pandemic year of 2020 but likely be lower than emissions in 2019.
Once Canada has up-to-date emissions data, Ottawa can set annual goals – to ensure accountability. Yes, there’s 2030 and net zero in 2050. But what of emissions in 2024 or 2027? The Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act includes a measure for progress reports. That’s good – but annual accountability would be stronger.
Canada has made strides on climate policy. More needs to be done, but some progress should soon become apparent. The economy continues to grow as emissions decline. What we need to know, as immediately as possible, is the level of current emissions, just like we know what’s going on with the economy.