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Canada's emissions saw modest spike in 2021, but blind spots remain, say critics

The country released 670 megatons of carbon dioxide in 2021, a sign Canada's greenhouse gas emissions could be plateauing. But critics say Ottawa is failing to count big sources from logging.

Canada's greenhouse gas emissions rebounded following a COVID-19 dip but remained below pre-pandemic levels, according to a 2021 federal inventory. 

The inventory, released April 14, shows the Canadian economy released 670 megatons of carbon dioxide in 2021, a 1.8 per cent increase from 2020 but still 7.4 per cent below 2019 levels. Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada Steven Guilbeault said the ministry predicted a rise in 2021 due to the sudden COVID-19 shutdown the previous year.

"Canada's latest greenhouse gas emissions data gives an encouraging picture of progress," said the minister.

Guilbeault attributed the lower-than-expected growth in emissions to a "decoupling" from economic growth. The emissions intensity of Canada's economy — which represents emissions per gross domestic product — has dropped 29 per cent since 2005.

"This is good news," said Tom Gunton, professor and director of the Resource and Environmental Planning Program at Simon Fraser University. "All the hard work Canadians have been doing is starting to pay off."

The overall trend suggests Canada's emissions are plateauing after years of growth, partly due to regulations around the release of methane in the oil and gas sector and the phase-out of coal-fired electricity, according to Caroline Brouillette, interim executive director of Climate Action Network Canada.

Emissions from homes dropped four per cent in the second year of the pandemic, while carbon emitted from agriculture dropped seven per cent, according to the inventory.

"The big takeaway is that climate policy is working and that we need more of it," she said.

The largest share of the 2021 increase in emissions came from the transport and the oil and gas sector as production increased following the COVID-19 shutdown. Together they accounted for a nine per cent increase in emissions.

“We’re beginning to turn the ship around. But we’ve got a lot more work today in the oil and gas sector and the transportation sector," said Gunton.

“We’ve sort of ignored the heavy duty sector, which is almost half of transportation’s emissions.”

Gunton said the federal government needs to follow through on emission targets for heavy-duty vehicles to spark industry to invest in alternatives to gas and diesel, such as green hydrogen.

Despite the good news on the latest emissions data, by 2021, Canada had dropped its emissions 8.4 per cent below 2005 levels. That's roughly a fifth of the progress toward Canada's 2030 target of reducing emissions by 40 to 45 per cent.

A logging and fossil fuel blindspot

Polanyi said Canada's 2021 emissions inventory is also notable for what was left out. Last fall, Nature Canada and the Natural Resources Defense Council released a report analyzing the net greenhouse gases from the country's logging industry.

Using the government's data, the report calculated that Canada's net forestry emissions added up to 75 megatonnes in 2020, more than 10 per cent of Canada's total emissions reported in that year's national inventory.

"The problem is, they're taking credit for a significant amount of greenhouse gas removals from regrowth after wildfires — about 80 megatonnes in 2021, and that's causing a huge imbalance, and it's basically masking the climate impacts of logging," said Michael Polanyi, Nature Canada's policy and campaign manager for nature-based climate solutions.

"It is another hard lesson just about how hard it is to reduce overall emissions."

Another blind spot the Climate Action Network's Brouillette noted on Friday is the national GHG inventory does not report on emissions from Canadian fossil fuels exported and burned abroad. Known as Scope 3 emissions, exported fossil fuels are not required to be counted under United Nations norms. 

But Brouillette says the scale of the fossil fuels exported from Canada is so large that once burned, those fuels release more carbon into the atmosphere than all of the emissions released within Canada's borders.

"That really points to something that we should report on," said Brouillette. "That could be kind of accounted for separately, but not having in the picture?"

"We don't manage what we don't measure — not having this data reported on transparently and consistently really leaves this big responsibility of ours out of the picture."

According to an analysis from the Climate Action Network, Canada must cut its emissions 60 per cent by 2030 — a third more than it has currently committed — to take on its fair share of the fight against global warming.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated uncounted net forestry emissions had climbed two per cent between 2000 and 2001. That number was calculated on misinterpreted comments from Michael Polanyi. Net logging emissions from 2021 have yet to be finalized.