Historical CO2 emissions: Canada tops the list as the highest per capita emitter

Which countries are historically responsible for climate change?  is a new analysis released by Carbon Brief on October 5, and Canada scores high: #10 in the world for total historical emissions, and #1 as the worst offender per capita (calculated as cumulative emissions in each year divided by the current population – which implicitly assigns responsibility for the past to those alive today). Time to finally lay to rest that old chestnut that Canada’s contribution to the climate crisis is relatively insignificant, and we should wait till the bigger countries act to cut our own emissions.

Those bigger countries don’t escape blame either: overwhelmingly, the U.S. continues to rank as the #1 country for CO2 emissions since 1850, responsible for 20% of the global total. In comparison, the next highest-ranked countries are China (11%), and Russia (7%). Calculations of rankings are complex and subject to the mists of time, given that the calculations date back to 1850, and the inclusion of deforestation and land use emissions for the first time has also made a difference –   bringing Brazil and Indonesia into the top 10 emitters, and raising Australia to 13th rank, from 16th.      

Media summaries include: “The countries most responsible for climate crisis revealed” reposted from The Guardian by the National Observer;  “Any way you slice it, Canada  is one of the worst emitters on the planet” (National Observer, Oct. 7) ; and “Historical emissions tally paints clearer picture  of climate responsibility” (Energy Mix, Oct. 12).

It is significant that this analysis was released in the Carbon Brief series of articles on Climate Justice, and in the lead-up to COP26 . Historical responsibility for the climate crisis and the North-South divide will be a key issue at COP26, as briefly discussed in   “Rich Economies Face Demands for Cash to Fix Climate Damage” (Bloomberg News, Oct. 11), and foreshadowed by the “fiery” speech about global inequality by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres in September. Shortly afterwards, U.S. president Biden addressed the U.N. General Assembly and  promised to double U.S. climate financing aid to $11bn by 2024.  According to  “Climate Finance Faces $75-Billion Gap as COP 26 Looms 1,000 Hours Away” (The Energy Mix, Sept. 21), Canada has one of the worst records for living up to its climate financing pledges, with an average contribution only 17% of its fair share in 2017 and 2018.

An article in Ricochet summarizes the Canadian record in “Repaying our climate debt” (May 2021),  with a focus on the African operations of Canadian countries. The Ricochet article cites other recent research on climate justice: “Quantifying national responsibility for climate breakdown: an equality-based attribution approach for carbon dioxide emissions in excess of the planetary boundary” in (The Lancet Planetary Health, September 2020)   and Confronting Carbon Inequality (Oxfam, Stockholm Environment Institute, Sept. 2020), which concluded that consumption by the richest 10% of the world’s population accounts for 24.5% of global emissions today, and half of those emissions are attributed to Canada, the U.S. and the EU.

Canada’s report to the UNFCC shows an increase in GHG emissions

ghg emissions_NIR 2018As required by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), Canada submitted its National Inventory Report on April 14, available from the U.N. website.   The Executive Summary   at the Canadian government website  announces that the Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were 729 million tons of CO2 and equivalent in 2018, (the latest figures available).  This is an increase of 15 million tons from 2017, and a reduction of only 1 million tons from 2005 – making Canada’s Paris Agreement target of a 30% reduction from 2005 levels a very challenging goal. The Executive Summary attributes the 2018 performance  to “higher fuel consumption for transportation, winter heating and oil and gas extraction.” The Toronto Star summarizes the official report in  “Canada’s emissions count jumped 15 million tonnes in 2018 from previous year, report shows” (April 15) ; a summary also appeared in The National Observer, focused on British Columbia.  The federal Green Party press release points out that Canada has missed the February deadline to submit its new target for Nationally Determined Contributions, and calls for Canada  to reduce our GHG’s to 60 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.  (In comparison, the latest EU target under debate is a 55% reduction by 2030  ).

The full National Inventory Report presents statistics since 1990, and analyses trends by region and according to industries – including energy, industrial processes, agriculture, land use (forestry) and waste management. It also measures emissions in 2018 by important gases, including carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. Carbon dioxide (CO2) accounted for 80% of Canada’s total emissions. Nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions (76% of which come from agriculture) accounted for 5%  in 2018, a 2.4% decrease from 1990 levels. Synthetic gases (HFC’s, PFC’s, SF6 and NF3) constituted slightly less than 2% of national emissions.

Canada’s other big polluter: methane

According to Canada’s National Inventory Report, methane accounted for 13% of Canada’s total emissions in 2018, an increase of  1% since 1990.  43% of those emissions are attributed to fugitive sources in oil and natural gas systems and another 31% from agriculture.  The  International Energy Agency  also tracks methane emissions from the oil and gas industry here , and in February 2020 summarized and critiqued Canada’s new policies to reduce methane emissions attributable to the oil and gas industry.   Methane (CH4) is a growing concern for global GHG emissions – as reported in an article in  Scientific AmericanMethane levels reach an all-time high” (April 12) , which summarizes recent reports by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) .

Trudeau welcomes Trump’s Keystone pipeline decision – can we really have it both ways?

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources delivered its report on The Future of Canada’s Oil and Gas Industry  in September 2016; see the WCR coverage from September here.   On January 19, the Government released its Official Response to the Committee Report, with this introductory statement: “It is clear to our Government that in order for the energy sector to continue to be a driver of prosperity and play a part in meeting global demand for energy, resource development must go hand in hand with the environmental and social demands of Canadians.”  Not surprising then, that when Donald Trump opened the door for construction of the Keystone Pipeline on January 24, Justin Trudeau and his cabinet members welcomed the news .

ccpa_extractedcarbon_shareYet author Marc Lee reinforces what others have stated in his January 25 article in CCPA Policy Notes.   “Canada can’t have it both ways on environment”  demonstrates that “the amount of fossil fuel removed from Canadian soil that ends up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide—has grown dramatically. ”  Although not technically “counted” in our own emissions reporting under the Paris Agreement, the emissions from Canada’s fossil fuel exports, counted in the countries where they are burned, is greater than Canada’s total GHG emissions within the country.  Lee goes on: “Based on our share of global fossil fuel reserves, Canada could continue to extract carbon at current levels for between 11 and 24 years at most (the smaller the carbon budget, the less the damages from climate change). This means a planned, gradual wind-down of these industries needs to begin immediately.”

Marc Lee’s article summarizes  a more complete report he authored for the Corporate Mapping Project, jointly led by the University of Victoria, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Parkland Institute.  Extracted Carbon: Re-examining Canada’s contribution to climate change through fossil fuel exports  updates a 2011 CCPA report, Peddling GHGs: What is the Carbon Footprint of Canada’s Fossil Fuel Exports?  in the context of the Paris Agreement and Canada’s contribution to the global carbon budget.  It concludes that “Plans to further grow Canada’s exports of fossil fuels are thus contradictory to the spirit and intentions of the Paris Agreement. Growing our exports could only happen if some other producing countries agreed to keep their fossil fuel reserves in the ground.  The problem with new fossil fuel infrastructure projects, like Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plants and bitumen pipelines, is that they lock us in to a high-emissions trajectory for several decades to come, giving up on the 1.5 to 2°C limits of Paris.”  It follows that “Canadian climate policy must consider supply-side measures such as rejecting new fossil fuel infrastructure and new leases for exploration and drilling, increasing royalties, and eliminating fossil fuel subsidies.”