A stable climate was a beautiful thing.
It allowed civilization to develop and humanity to prosper. And it allowed all the planet’s majestic ecosystems we cherish and rely on to thrive as well.
But that’s now gone — cooked away over a few short decades by rampant fossil fuel burning. In fact, 90 per cent of all planet-heating gases humans have ever released from burning fossil fuels have been dumped into the atmosphere during the lives of the baby boomers. That’s my generation. We got to grow up under a stable climate. And we’ve spent our lifetimes helping to burn it down.
In contrast, today’s youth — and all future generations of Canadians — are finding themselves trapped in a cage match with an increasingly “angry beast.” And we keep making this climate beast ever more dangerous with each additional tonne of climate pollution we emit.
The burning question for today’s adults is how violent and unpredictable of a climate legacy are we going to saddle our children and future generations with.
Historically, Canadians have been one of the world’s top 10 climate polluters — both in total and per capita. For the last 35 years, we’ve repeatedly promised to do something about it. How are we doing?
In this article, we’ll first take a quick look at what Canadians have done so far with our oversized climate pollution. Then we’ll take a deeper dive into one of our largest and most out-of-control emissions sources that’s feeding the climate beast — our tailpipes.
Canada is leading our peers…
As the decades have rolled on and climate breakdown has grown ever more dangerous, Canadians have been out in front, leading our peers. But not in a good way.
Fuelling our rising horde of gas-guzzlers in Canada is burning down our nation’s climate promises and our kids’ future. @bsaxifrage writes for @NatObserver
My first chart shows what Canadians — and our peers in the Group of Seven (G7) nations — have done with their climate polluting since 1990.
As you can see, every G7 nation now emits less than they did in 1990 — except Canada. We are the climate rogues in the group, still emitting far more.
Collectively, these wealthy, industrialized nations emit one-third of global climate pollution and produce half the world's GDP. These nations have the resources, talent and capacity to reduce their emissions.
And most have. For example, the chart shows that our German and British peers have been steadily reducing climate pollution for decades. As a result, they’ve cut their emissions in half.
Clearly, it has been possible for Canadians to reduce our oversized climate impact as well. We’ve just refused to act.
If we want to save our kids and future Canadian generations from a dystopian future, we have to stop fuelling the crisis. And a critical place we have to slam the brakes on is the amount of climate pollution we dump out our tailpipes.
Pumping up the climate beast.
Few sources of Canadian climate pollution are larger and more out of control than the gasoline and diesel we pump into our cars and trucks. It’s arguably our nation’s single biggest climate impact. My next chart compares the immense scale of these emissions to those from other sectors of our economy and lives.
That tall orange bar on the right is tailpipe emissions from all the road vehicles in Canada — around 120 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) per year.
This “pump it and dump it” climate damage rises to around 150 MtCO2 when we include the additional emissions from extracting, refining and shipping all that gasoline and diesel.
That “wells to wheels” total is shown by an orange dot on the chart, way above everything else.
For scale, there are more than 140 nations that emit less than that for everything in their economy and society.
As the chart shows, it is also more climate pollution than from major sectors in our economy — like heavy industry, agriculture, electricity or all our buildings. In fact, even Canada’s notoriously polluting oilsands industry emits less (86 MtCO2) than our tailpipes.
Not only are our tailpipe emissions massive, we’ve also been increasing them twice as fast as our overall emissions. Canadian tailpipe emissions have risen 28 per cent since 1990 — versus a 14 per cent rise for everything else combined. This surge in tailpipe pollution has erased our climate progress in other areas and dragged our national emissions even higher.
What’s driving this trend? Lots more tailpipes — attached to the world’s worst gas-guzzlers. Let’s look at each of these problems in more detail.
Problem #1: Canada’s rising horde of burners.
The primary reason our tailpipe emissions are going up is that the number of fossil fuel-burning cars and trucks (a.k.a. burnermobiles) keeps going up. My next chart shows the relentless trend.
Back in 2000, we had 18 million burners on our roads. Now we have 26 million.
That means we have eight million more gas tanks we are filling. And eight million more tailpipes spewing climate pollution.
Canadians could choose pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs) instead of burnermobiles. These run on made-in-Canada electricity, which is far less climate- damaging than gasoline.
In fact, gasoline engines are about as climate dirty as you can get — producing twice the climate pollution of coal power plants to do the same work.
So far, however, less than one per cent of Canadian cars and trucks are BEVs. On the chart, they’re shown by the tiny green smear of frosting on top of that hulking black mountain of fossil burners.
That last chart showed the trend over the last couple decades. This next one focuses on what we did last year.
The height of each bar shows the percentage of new passenger vehicles that burn gasoline or diesel.
The red bar is Canada. Last year, when Canadians decided to buy a brand-new passenger car or truck, 92 out of 100 bought a burner. That’s according to the most recent data from Statistics Canada.
As you can see, that’s a higher rate than our peers in many other nations.
For example, last year in the cold, northern, oil-producing nation of Norway, new car buyers only picked burnermobiles 17 per cent of the time. They chose all-electric BEV 83 per cent of the time. As a result, total emissions from Norway’s passenger vehicle fleet have been plunging.
New cars and trucks last a long time. As each new one rolls off the dealer’s lot, it commits us to tonnes more climate pollution spewing out its tailpipe for the next decade or two. How many tonnes are locked in depends on how big of a gas guzzler each car is.
And here again, Canadians lead the pack.
Problem #2: Canadians choose the world’s most climate-polluting cars.
A second major reason for Canada’s huge tailpipe emissions is the sad fact that Canadians choose to buy the world’s most climate-polluting new cars.
My next chart shows what this most recent report found.
Each bar on this chart shows litres burned per 100 kilometres (L/100km), for the average new passenger vehicle.
For example, at the top of the chart, we see that the French, Germans and British choose cars that burn five litres on average. In the middle of the pack, we see that the Chinese buy new cars that burn six litres on average. And the world average is a bit under seven litres.
Where are Canadians? Way down at the very bottom. Our new passenger vehicles average 8.3 L/100km.
Some common new Canadian vehicles that burn around 8.3 L/100km include the all-wheel drive versions of the Toyota RAV4 and Camry, Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and Subaru’s Impreza, Forester and Outback.
Cars and trucks last a long time and those litres add up. In Canada, the average new passenger vehicle requires the owner to pump over 20 tonnes of gasoline into it over its lifespan. At recent gas prices of around $1.50 per litre, it will cost more than $40,000 at the pump.
All that gasoline gets dumped out the tailpipe and straight into the environment as it’s burned. That will pump more than 75 tonnes of planet-heating gases into our already destabilized climate.
It is easy to appreciate the massive size and weight of our cars and trucks. But hidden from view are the vastly larger amounts of gasoline and climate pollution that come with them. They each weigh many times more than the vehicle itself.
All that future gasoline production, burning and resulting climate damage gets locked in the minute the new car or truck is purchased.
Driving off the climate cliff…
We’ve got the kids in the back seat.
Are we really going to drive them off the climate cliff?
Because that’s the direction we’re headed with our growing horde of the world’s most climate-damaging vehicles.
If we want to give our kids and future Canadians a fighting chance at a decent future, we'd better reverse course quickly — while there is still time.
Interested in even more info on the climate impact of Canadian cars and trucks? Here are a few more of my articles on this topic: