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Syncrude’s oil sands plant at Mildred Lake north of Fort McMurray, Alta.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Sometimes the Canadian debate about greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generates more heat than light. Between climate change deniers and climate change hysterics, it is hard to get a fix on what is actually going on.

Recently, Environment Canada came to the rescue with the release of its 2013 Emissions Trends Report (ETR). Helpfully, the report tells us what emissions were in 2005, what they are now (at least in 2011, the latest year for which data are available), and how they are expected to change between now and 2020 – our target year for emissions reductions under the Copenhagen Accord. What we see is that some sectors of the economy and provinces such as Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia have done a lot, while others have done very little to contribute to meeting our 2020 target.

While most observers agree that Canada needs to do significantly more to reach its Copenhagen target, few bother to highlight the progress that has already been made. Few Canadians probably realize that in 2011, GHG emissions in Canada were actually 35 megatonnes (mt) or about 5 per cent lower now than they were in the Copenhagen base year of 2005. This decline in emissions occurred despite the fact that the Canadian population grew by about 6.6 per cent and the real economy grew by almost 9 per cent between 2005 and 2011.

Although these developments are positive, they do not diminish the challenge that Canada faces in meeting the pledge Prime Minister Stephen Harper made in Copenhagen.

To properly appreciate that challenge requires an understanding of where we stand now – in terms of both the economic and the geographic location of our GHG emissions. Fortunately, the ETR gives us the data we need.

The first way to divide the GHG pie is by economic location, i.e. what emissions come from what sectors of the economy. Environment Canada divides the economy into seven sectors: transportation, electricity, oil and gas, buildings, agriculture, emission-intensive trade-exposed (EITE) industries such as cement and smelting, and waste and other sources of emissions.

Looking across the sectors, we see that over 2005 to 2011, most sectors held emissions relatively constant, despite the growing population and economy. However, two sectors stand out for contributing emissions reductions toward our 2020 target.

The biggest contributor is the electricity sector. The reduction by this sector of about 35 mt (26 per cent) comes largely from the Ontario government's decision to close its coal-fired electricity plants. (Federal regulation of coal-fired plants has a long lead time and thus won't do much to reduce emissions until after 2020.) The other sector that contributed significantly was EITE. The sector's 11 mt (10 per cent) reduction came partly from a fall-off in activity but also substantial plant modernizations.

Surprisingly, given all the criticism it has received, the oil and gas sector's overall emissions were essentially flat, as rising oil-sands-related emissions were largely offset by declining emissions from conventional oil and gas production.

By province, emissions vary widely, ranging from two mt in Prince Edward Island to 246 mt in Alberta in 2011. The combined emissions of Alberta and Saskatchewan exceed the combined emissions of the two largest provinces, Ontario and Quebec, despite the fact that the combined population of Ontario and Quebec is about four times the combined population of the two Prairie provinces. The emissions of all provinces except Alberta and Saskatchewan have remained constant or fallen over the 2005-11 period, with Ontario's emissions declining by 35 mt or about 12 per cent. This contrasts with Alberta's rise in emissions of 14 mt or about 6 per cent over the period.

A more informative comparison comes from looking at provinces' annual emissions per person. Here the magnitude of the differences between provinces becomes clear. Annual per capita emissions range from 10 tonnes in Quebec to almost 70 tonnes in Saskatchewan. Per capita emissions in the three largest provinces, Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, are in the 10-to-13-tonne range, putting them on a par with best-performing countries in Western Europe. The extremely high annual per capita emissions of 65 tonnes in Alberta and 70 tonnes in Saskatchewan stem, in part, from oil and gas production, but also from the two provinces' continued reliance on coal-fired electrical generation.

An argument that is sometimes made is that Alberta's and Saskatchewan's extraordinary level of emissions are in some sense worth it, because they produce extraordinary wealth for the Canadian economy. Combining the emissions data from the ETR with provincial gross domestic product (GDP) data from Statistics Canada shows why this argument is mistaken. GDP per tonne of GHG emissions is more than $4,300 in Quebec and $3,800 in Ontario. In contrast, Alberta GDP per tonne of GHGs is less than $1,200 while Saskatchewan produces just under $1,000 of GDP per tonne of GHGs.

What does all this mean for meeting the commitment made by Prime Minister Harper in Copenhagen, and recently reaffirmed by Canada's Environment Minister at the Warsaw climate change conference? Former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein was fond of saying that you "hunt where the ducks are." In the case of GHG emissions, the ducks are heavily concentrated in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Simple arithmetic makes clear that substantial reductions by emitters in those provinces, either directly or through financing lower-cost offsets elsewhere in the economy, will be essential to meet Canada's Copenhagen commitment.

Paul Boothe is professor and director of the Lawrence National Centre for Policy and Management at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey Business School. He previously served as Canada's deputy minister of the environment.