To paraphrase Winston Churchill, those who fail to learn from their climate polluting history are doomed to repeat it.

The Canadian climate discussion is once again abuzz with yet another round of future promises and plans. We've been through this many times over the past three decades. Canada promises to reduce emissions, yet the results have always been the same — emissions continue to rise.

Canada and G7 nations change in climate pollution from 1990 to 2019

Failure to cut our oversized emissions has left us far behind our peers in the Group of Seven (G7) nations. As of 2019, the most recent data available, Canada was the only one still emitting far above their 1990 level.

Equally worrisome, over the last decade — as the climate emergency started hitting with increasing fury, and we pledged to act faster under the Paris Agreement — Canada was the only one in the group whose emissions went up. That's shown by the solid lines on this chart.

So, with an eye to avoiding the same mistakes yet again, I dug into Canada's historical record to find the specific areas where our emissions changed the most since 1990 — either up or down.

What I found is that out of the dozens of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) subcategories, just 10 account for the lion's share of Canada's emissions increases and decreases. And several were surprises to me.

For those interested in a quick tour of our biggest climate shifts, and what's behind them, here are Canada's Top 10 in order. In the accompanying charts, emissions changes are shown in millions of tonnes of climate pollution per year (MtCO2). Red shows increases since 1990; blue shows decreases.

The first five are by far the largest, so let's start with those.

Canada's top five emissions changes since 1990

#1 — Dirtier barrels and lots more of them (up 74 MtCO2 since 1990). Fossil crude extraction has nearly tripled in Canada since 1990. Adding climate insult to injury, emissions per barrel also went up. As a result, the oil and gas industry now pipelines a billion barrels more every year into our atmosphere — while emitting an extra 10 per cent with each barrel.

#2 — Overharvesting Canada's forests (up 67 MtCO2). In another major climate loss, logging has remained high despite a steady decline in net growth from Canada's managed forests. This growing imbalance between harvesting and re-growth has tipped Canada's land use sector from a big CO2 sink into a CO2 source. (Note: This doesn't include the even larger rise in emissions from climate-fuelled wildfires, droughts, and insects. See endnotes.)

Analysis: To paraphrase Winston Churchill, those who fail to learn from their climate polluting history are doomed to repeat it, writes columnist @bsaxifrage.

#3 — Freight trucks (up 38 MtCO2). Trucking emissions have nearly tripled in Canada since 1990. A major cause has been a shift to more CO2-intensive "just in time" supply chains, "next day" delivery, and the expanding use of trucks as rolling warehouses.

#4 — Dirtier passenger vehicles and lots more of them (up 33 MtCO2). Canada's relatively weak climate policies in the transportation sector have allowed the number of gas-guzzling pickup trucks, minivans, and SUVs — a.k.a. "light-duty trucks" — to quadruple since 1990. Canadians used to drive mostly the cleaner sedan-style cars. Now we mostly drive these big climate hammers. Environment Canada says our light-duty truck fleet emits 31 per cent more CO2 every kilometre than our sedan-style cars do.

#5 — Cleaner electricity and more of it (down 26 MtCO2). Rounding out our five biggest emissions changes is the only one heading in a climate-safe direction: electricity generation. This has been Canada's only big climate success so far. Strong climate policies pushed total electricity emissions down significantly, even as the amount of electricity generated rose by a third. Canada now has some of the world's climate-safest electricity. One of the major climate tasks facing Canadians and the rest of humanity is to "electrify everything" as fast as possible. Most Canadians can now power rapid and deep emissions cuts by shifting their fossil burning to locally made electricity.

The remainder of Canada's Top 10 are relatively smaller, but they add up. And as a welcome climate relief, most of these are emission reductions.

Canada's top ten emissions changes since 1990

#6 — Cleaner off-road recreational vehicles and fewer of them (down 12 MtCO2). I was surprised that Canada's second-largest emissions reduction is from an area I knew nothing about: "Off-Road Other." I asked Environment Canada about it, and they said the big emissions cuts here are mostly from a reduction in the number of off-road recreational vehicles — along with a shift from 2-stroke engines to cleaner 4-strokes. This is an example of how cleaning up toxic air pollution reaped climate benefits along the way.

#7 — Ozone hole versus climate change (up 11 MtCO2). Ozone-destroying chemicals, called CFCs, were used in refrigerators, air conditioners and heat pumps. These have been replaced with ozone-safe alternatives known as HFCs. But the most common and least expensive HFCs are more powerful greenhouse gases. A global Kigali Agreement signed in 2019 aims to replace these with climate-safer alternatives.

#8 — Factory closed (down 10 MtCO2). Canada's third-biggest emissions reduction was caused by the closure of the nation's only adipic acid factory. Yeah, I had to look that up too. Adipic acid is a chemical used mostly to make nylon. Producing it emits N2O, which is a greenhouse gas.

#9 — Cleaner metal production and less of it (down 10 MtCO2). Emissions cuts here came from a combination of cleaner processes and reduced production in Canada.

#10 — Cleaner small cars (down 9 MtCO2). As mentioned above, the IPCC has two categories for passenger vehicles. SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks discussed above are listed under "light-duty trucks." The smaller sedan-style cars discussed here get listed under "light-duty vehicles." In Canada, the number of sedan-style cars has increased since 1990. And so has the number of kilometres they are driven. But their total climate pollution has fallen. That's because this class of passenger vehicle has been getting cleaner per kilometre faster than kilometres driven have gone up. Unfortunately, this small climate step forward with cars got wiped out three times over by the switch to much more CO2-intensive alternatives of SUVs and pickup trucks.

One step forward, three steps back.

This has also been the consistent pattern of Canadian climate failure across the Top 10, as well as across all the IPCC subcategories combined. For every tonne of emissions reduced in one area, three more tonnes were added to another area.

Another troubling pattern seen in this Top 10 tour has been the shift by industries and individuals to more CO2-intensive alternatives.

For example, the oil and gas sector has been allowed to shift to ever more CO2-intensive extraction methods — from conventional to bitumen mining and then to steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). Likewise, the freight sector has been allowed to shift to more CO2-intensive delivery models like "just in time" and "next day" delivery. And Canadians have been allowed to shift from the cleaner cars they used to drive to more CO2-intensive SUVs and pickup trucks.

With such huge climate policy loopholes, it's no wonder Canada's emissions keep going up.

Our decades of foot-dragging have burned up much of the time we had to act. And it is locking in deep structural emissions sources that will run out the clock even further. If we want any shot at preventing a full-blown climate crisis, we need a new set of climate policies this time around. Policies that will finally target the root causes driving our biggest emissions increases.

Three steps forward ... or bust.



  • DATA — All data in this article, unless otherwise noted, comes from Canada's National Inventory Report 2021 (NIR). It covers 1990 through 2019. It is the most recent data available to the public. The IPCC sectors discussed in the article are listed in Table A9-2 "Emissions by IPCC Sector."
  • HISTORY — Canada has been formally pledging to reduce our oversized climate pollution since 1988, when prime minister Brian Mulroney committed to a 20 per cent emissions cut by 2005.
  • HIDDEN SOURCES — Two other sources of climate pollution would have made Canada's Top 10 but are kept off our official inventory. Both are listed only as "memo items":

    Dying forests — In addition to the official 67 MtCO2 increase from the land use sector discussed above, the NIR notes an increase of roughly 125 MtCO2 from Canada's managed forests (using 10-year averages). These result from increasing forest death and decay caused by a combination of poor forestry management colliding with human-caused climate shifts — rising wildfire, droughts, storms and insects. The atmosphere and climate react the same to "official" CO2 and "memo item" CO2. So, despite this growing flood of human-induced CO2 being pushed off our books, it still continues to pile up in the air, worsening the climate crisis.

    Most jet fuel — Canada doesn't take responsibility for reducing emissions caused by Canadian flights landing in another nation. These emissions get listed as a memo item only. Unsurprisingly, this part of Canada's jet fuel emissions has risen by 10 MtCO2 since 1990. When non-CO2 climate impacts are included, the increase rises to ~30 MtCO2-equivalent. Like most nations, Canada exempts from its climate targets and carbon pricing its share of international flight CO2. In addition, all nations currently shun responsibility for the non-CO2 climate impacts from their jet fuel burning, like black carbon and contrail-induced warming. But here again, fooling ourselves doesn't fool the atmosphere.

Here are some additional details about a few of the Top 10 changes discussed in the article:

  • #1: "Oil and Gas Extraction" — In 1990, Canadian oil extraction emissions averaged 59 kgCO2 per barrel. Now they average 65 kgCO2 (see NIR Figure 2.25). Just those extra 6 kgCO2 per barrel currently add up to an additional 10 MtCO2 per year in Canada. The full climate impact of switching to dirtier extraction however is even higher. That's because an increasing portion of the emissions has shifted to the United States as refining has increasingly shifted across the border. The NIR mentions this shift in emissions but doesn't give a number for it.
  • #2 "Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry" (LULUCF) — The biggest change in land use emissions comes from faltering net growth in Canada's managed forest lands. (Note: This doesn't include the most emitting forest lands that have been pushed off the books; see memo item above.) These on-the-books forest lands are absorbing 70 MtCO2 less each year than they did back in 1990. In contrast, wood harvested from them emit 10 MtCO2 more per year than in 1990. This growing managed forestry imbalance between high logging emissions and faltering regrowth has combined to increase atmospheric CO2 by ~80 MtCO2 per year compared to 1990. This huge rise in CO2 in the air has wiped out small removals from Canadian-managed croplands and wetlands. The net change for all of Canada's LULUCF has been 67 MtCO2 more per year. Canada excludes LULUCF emissions from our emissions-reduction targets. So, this is yet another area in which our actions are filling the atmosphere with lots more CO2, but we aren't taking responsibility for reducing it.
  • #4 "Light-Duty Gasoline Trucks" (a.k.a. pickup trucks, SUVs and vans) — The NIR data show these made up 24 per cent of passenger vehicles in 1990. Now they dominate at 54 per cent. Canadian policy has fuelled this shift to more climate-polluting vehicles in many ways. One of the biggest enablers has the policy choice to keep our gas taxes $400 per tonne of CO2 lower than what our European peers charge. By making it so much cheaper to climate pollute out Canadian tailpipes, this policy has incentivized Canadians to buy the world's more climate-polluting new passenger vehicles. Unsurprisingly, cheap tailpipe polluting also means smaller incentives to switch to less polluting electric-powered alternatives. And sure enough, Canadians are lagging far behind our European peers in switching to climate safer EVs. Instead of addressing this huge CO2-pollution pricing gap holding back climate action, Canadian policy has only brought in relatively tiny official "carbon taxes."
  • #5 "Electricity Generation" — Most of the emissions cuts in this sector came from Ontario's 2007 Cessation of Coal Use Regulation. The provincial government boasts it is the "single largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction action on the continent." It accounts for 22 MtCO2 of the 26 MtCO2 decline in electricity emissions since 1990.

Keep reading

Canada calls itself a climate leader. If people around the world lived like us, global emissions would skyrocket.

Prime Minister's Office: "As a climate LEADER, Canada has put in place measures to reduce pollution to work toward meeting our Paris commitments, and achieving a net-zero economy by 2050. As the world shifts to a cleaner and greener economy, Canada will continue to take a LEADERSHIP role in the fight against climate change, so we can keep creating new middle class jobs across all sectors and building a better future for everyone."
"Prime Minister Trudeau announces enhanced and ambitious climate action to cut pollution at the COP26 summit" (November 1, 2021)

"Trudeau has been hailed as a climate LEADER internationally, pledging to cut Canada’s emissions and invest in cleaner energy." (Aljazeera, 29 Mar 2022)

Empty words.

"mostly from a reduction in the number of off-road recreational vehicles"

Where I live, ATVs and OHVs seem to be multiplying. Wreaking havoc in the backcountry.
Are Canadians really buying fewer OHVs and using them less?