OTTAWA—Canada has flattened the curve.
No, not that curve. The emissions curve.
But when it comes to actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we’re barely past the starting line.
That’s according to the most recent annual pollution tally that the federal government submitted to the United Nations on Monday. It shows Canada emitted 730 megatonnes of gas that causes climate change in 2019. That’s up slightly from 728 megatonnes in 2018, and just 1.1 per cent lower than the 739 megatonnes emitted in 2005, which is the benchmark the government is using to measure progress toward its current goal under the international Paris Agreement.
In other words, Canada has made almost no progress, even as the Liberal government in Ottawa prepares to declare a more ambitious target for 2030 in time for U.S. President Joe Biden’s climate summit on April 22.
But Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson sees “really good news” in the numbers and graphs published on Monday: he says things would have been much worse without the Liberal government’s climate action.
“The first thing we had to do was bend the curve,” Wilkinson told the Star on Monday, describing how emissions were projected to climb steeply after the Liberals took power in 2015.
“So the first thing that the (Liberal climate plan) has to do is stall that trajectory and turn it back,” he said. “And that’s exactly what this is showing.”
Catherine Abreu is executive director of Climate Action Network Canada and a member of an independent task force advising the Liberal government on how to reduce emissions. She agreed it is “good to know” Canada is flattening its emissions curve, but said the numbers in Monday’s tally are far from a success story.
Abreu pointed to a recent report in the journal, Nature Climate Change, which found global emissions have dropped since the Paris deal was adopted in 2015. But Canada’s emissions have increased since then, the tally shows.
She also noted that most other G7 countries are using 1990 as the benchmark for progress with reducing emissions. That means Canada is having a harder time clearing a lower bar.
“I’m not here to celebrate a one per cent decline in emissions,” Abreu said.
“It’s really a story about how little action has been taken in the last … couple of decades in Canada, how far behind we have gotten, and how much catching up we have to do.”
Wilkinson argued the Liberals have already made an impact. He pointed to how the federal government projected in 2016 that emissions would be 34 megatonnes higher in 2019 than the latest tally shows. Wilkinson credited the difference to the Trudeau government’s $60-billion pan-Canadian framework to fight climate change, which included the creation of a national minimum carbon price and preceded the $15-billion plan that was unveiled in December.
With incoming regulations for cleaner fuel and to reduce methane emissions, government projections now show Canada is on track to exceed the 2030 target to slash emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels, which was set by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. With the ever-increasing minimum carbon price and incoming clean fuel standards, the government now predicts emissions will be at least 31 per cent lower than 2005 levels by 2030.
But while the latest tally shows emissions from many sectors have dropped since 2005 — most notably in electricity generation, where emissions fell by almost 50 per cent — two sectors have belched out significantly more pollution. From 2005 to 2019, emissions from oil and gas extraction increased 67 per cent, from 63 megatonnes to 105 megatonnes. Emissions from road transportation also jumped 18 per cent, from 130 megatonnes to 153 megatonnes over that time, the tally shows.
Wilkinson said Ottawa is working with the U.S. government in both areas, after the countries agreed to co-ordinated climate action earlier this year. That includes looking to align more stringent vehicle fuel efficiency standards across the border, encouraging the adoption and production of electric cars, and co-ordinating regulations to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas production, Wilkinson said.
Dale Marshall, national climate program manager with Environmental Defence, said it has long been clear that growing emissions from transportation, oil and gas are holding back Canada’s climate progress. He said Wilkinson is “grasping at straws” by claiming it is good news that annual emissions have stabilized, and that the government should set binding sales standards for electric vehicles and help oil and gas workers transition to cleaner industries.
“We need to stop expanding the oil and gas industry, and we need to move very quickly towards zero-emissions vehicles,” Marshall said.
“Canada needs to do so much more.”