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The setting sun reflects off of power lines on the Trans-Canada Highway in Walhachin, B.C., on March 29. Canada's greenhouse gas emissions plummeted to their lowest level in almost three decades in 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Associated Press

Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions fell by about 9 per cent during the first year of the pandemic, largely due to a decline in road and air travel amid provincially mandated lockdowns and the COVID-19 recession.

The 2020 emissions data were laid out in the latest national inventory report, which was submitted on Thursday to the United Nations as part of Canada’s annual reporting obligations under international climate pacts. The report shows that since the turn of the century, marked reductions in emissions have been tied to economic downturns. But below the overall numbers, the government says the report also shows signs that its climate change policies are moving the country in the right direction.

Emissions in 2020 dropped to 672 megatonnes from 738 megatonnes in 2019, the report said. Before this drop, the biggest cut in emissions followed the 2008 financial crisis. The 680-page report provides the first detailed look at the way the COVID-19 crisis affected greenhouse gas emissions, which put human health at risk from threats such as extreme heat and are linked to more severe and frequent natural disasters.

Given that the driving force behind the emissions drop was the pandemic, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault in a statement cautioned that emissions “are likely to rebound to a degree.”

“Nonetheless, there are also real signs of progress,” he said.

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Notable emissions reductions included a 12-per-cent drop from 2019 levels in the transportation sector, and an 11-per-cent decrease in the public electricity and heat production sector. The latter was attributed largely to the phasing out of coal-fired electricity in provinces such as Alberta.

Oil and gas extraction was responsible for 100 megatonnes of emissions in 2020, down four megatonnes from 2019 levels. Analysis released last month by the International Energy Agency gives reason for pause when it comes to declines in the energy sector. Its research shows global energy-related emissions reached their highest level ever in 2021.

The latest emissions data from Canada include signals of what’s working, but also “signals of the work that the government still has cut out for it,” said Kathryn Harrison, a professor at the University of British Columbia who researches climate and energy policy.

Canada has never met any of its emissions-reduction targets, but the Liberal government has promised to end that habit. Doing so will require major changes, given that Canada has had the worst emissions record in the G7 since the 2015 Paris climate deal was struck. The Paris agreement seeks to hold global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

The Liberal government has pledged to reach net-zero emissions by mid-century and to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Mr. Guilbeault pointed to the national inventory report as evidence that the government’s plan is doable.

Mr. Guilbeault’s office said he was unavailable for an interview on Thursday.

The report also notes that the country’s historically highest-emitting provinces have diverged in their emissions patterns in the past two decades. In 2005, Ontario and Alberta had the highest emissions. Since then, Ontario has cut emissions by 27 per cent, while in Alberta they have grown by about 8 per cent.

Variance in the emissions from Canada’s 13 provinces and territories is based on population, energy sources and economic structure, the report said. Economies based on resource extraction tend to have higher emissions than service-based ones.

In its latest climate plan, the government said it would spend another $9.1-billion to hit the 2030 target. It also unveiled new tax credits to spur the transition to a low-carbon economy in this year’s budget and a $15-billion investment fund aimed at leveraging private capital to help the country meet its climate goals.

Prof. Harrison said the report shows that the federal carbon tax and regulations to change Canada’s electricity sources and limit methane emissions have had a meaningful impact. But those reductions have been “undone” by growth in other areas.

She said the data underscore the need for Ottawa to move quickly to develop and implement promised regulations to spur emissions cuts in other parts of the economy, including the cap on the oil and gas sector, zero-emissions vehicle mandates and a proposed net-zero electricity standard.

NDP MP Laurel Collins described the emissions report as a pandemic-driven outlier and said it shows the government isn’t acting with the urgency demanded by the climate crisis.

Conservative MP Kyle Seeback raised concerns that the only time emissions have seen a meaningful dip under the Liberals was during a recession. The same pattern also played out under the previous Tory government.

The latest national inventory report also reflects changes to the way some emissions are counted, for example, in the agriculture sector. But the environmental group Nature Canada says it still dramatically undercounts emissions from logging.

Last year, Nature Canada and several other non-profits said Ottawa has been underreporting total emissions from the forestry sector by more than 80 megatonnes a year. The main reason, the groups said, is a “biased” accounting approach that in part excludes emissions released from wildfires but takes credit for the carbon stored in trees that regenerate in burned areas.

In its Thursday report, the government says “significant improvements” will be made in future submissions to the UN, in particular around how emissions in the forestry sector are counted.

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