Canada’s greenhouse gases fell during the pandemic

OTTAWA—The pandemic took a big chunk out of Canada’s national greenhouse gas output in 2020, but emissions from oil and gas extraction remained stubbornly high as the federal Liberal government signals it wants to finally see meaningful reductions from the country’s top source of pollution that causes climate change.

Published Thursday as part of Canada’s obligations under global climate change agreements, the latest national tally of emissions in Canada shows the impact of economic shutdowns in the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. With workplaces closed and the abrupt halt of commuting and air travel, overall greenhouse gas emissions in Canada dropped 8.9 per cent to 672 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent from 2019 to 2020, or 9.3 per cent below 2005 levels.

That’s the lowest tally of national emissions since the late 1990s. It also seems to suggest significant progress toward the government’s 2030 goal to reduce greenhouse gas output to at least 40 per cent below 2005 levels, but the tally produced by Environment Canada credits the pandemic for driving much of the drop.

After years of increases, emissions from transport dropped 12 per cent from 2019 to 2020 “largely due to fewer kilometres driven and a decrease in air traffic,” the report says. Emissions from manufacturing fell 11 per cent, in part because of factories that closed “temporarily and permanently” in 2020.

The report also charts a significant 24-per-cent drop in “fugitive” emissions from fossil fuel production, which is mostly attributed to reduced gas leaks from the fossil fuel sector and “coincides” with federal and provincial regulations on methane pollution. It is also linked to a five-per-cent and two-per-cent drop respectively in oil and gas production from 2019 to 2020.

Despite this, oil and gas producers remained the largest source of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 27 per cent of the country’s overall output in 2020. Emissions from oil and gas extraction sat at 100 megatonnes, up from 63 megatonnes in 2005 after a 190-per-cent rise in oilsands operations over that time, while the overall energy sector — including transport, stationary combustion and fugitive sources — accounted for 80 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas output in 2020, the report says.

In a statement accompanying the report, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault claimed “Canada is moving in the right direction” as it spends billions on climate action to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, but warned “overall emissions are likely to rebound to a degree as Canada’s economy roars back to life.”

Guilbeault also hailed the seven-megatonne reduction in emissions from electricity generation, which is linked with the ongoing phaseout of coal-fired power, as well as how the report notes a two-megatonne drop in methane pollution. He also noted Canada’s “emissions intensity” — the total pollution divided by the size of the national economy — continued to drop and is now 39 per cent lower than it was in 1990. That means emissions have dropped even while the economy has grown.

All this, Guilbeault said, “shows the potential of reducing pollution across this country and fighting the worst effects of climate change.”

The latest tally comes after environmentalists lampooned the federal government for approving a major new offshore oil project in the North Atlantic last week, just two days after the latest climate report from leading scientists prompted UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres to proclaim it is now “moral and economic madness” to invest in new fossil fuel operations.

The government’s emissions reduction plan for 2030 — published last month as required under a climate “accountability” law enacted last year — also predicts Canadian oil and gas production will increase this decade, even as pollution from the sector is forecast to potentially drop to 42 per cent below 2005 levels.

To ensure reductions happen, the government is preparing to impose a cap on oil and gas emissions.

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