University of Winnipeg

How does Canada plan to reduce its Greenhouse Gas Footprint?

How does Canada plan to reduce its Greenhouse Gas Footprint?

In a previous blog post, we took an in-depth look at Canada’s annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions [1]. The most recent GHG census pegged total annual emissions at 722 Mt (million metric tons) [2]. This is a very large number considering Canada’s relatively small population, meaning our per capita emissions rank among the highest in the world [3].

In 2015, Canada made a promise to the world that it would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by the year 2030. That’s a reduction of over 200 Mt [4].

Not long ago, the Government of Canada published an update to its long-term emissions projections[5],[6], [7]. It provided a much more optimistic forecast of future greenhouse gas emissions, but conceded that the gap between projected emissions and Canada’s 2030 target is widening.

This week, we unpack some the details behind these numbers to help answer the question: “how does Canada plan to reduce its greenhouse gas footprint?”

Setting the Stage

First of all, let’s be clear: cutting 30% of our greenhouse gases is an enormous challenge. Consider some of the obstacles Canada faces from the outset:

  • By 2030, Canada’s population is expected to grow
  • The oil and gas sector, the largest contributor of greenhouse gases in Canada, is also projected to grow.
  • A significant percentage of Canadians do not accept the fact that human activities are responsible for climate change, and some don’t even believe that the climate is changing in the first place [8].
  • Many jurisdictions do not think that reducing emissions through a carbon tax system is necessary.
  • Uncertainties about future market prices, public opinions, and political wills makes it very difficult to know exactly what total reduction in emissions will be required, or how realistic long-term reduction plans are.
  • Canada’s lack of density both within many cities and across the country makes investments in public transportation very expensive, relative to many European cities.

The Pan Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change

 The Pan Canadian Framework (PCF) on Clean Growth and Climate Change outlines the steps Canadians can take today to reduce greenhouse gas emissions[9].

Phasing Out Fossil-fueled Electricity

Currently, about 20% of Canada’s electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels (primarily coal). Coal power plants generate significant air pollution, are a principal cause of acid rain, and release mercury into the environment. Coal, however, is readily available and cheap to extract, which is why so many coal plants remain despite their drawbacks.

Many remote and northern communities rely on diesel powered generators for their electricity. Burning diesel releases many harmful, lung-damaging chemicals into the air. However, diesel is a very reliable power source and can be stored in giant tanks to be used throughout the long, dark and cold winter months.

Reducing our reliance on coal and diesel will improve our health, save us money and help reduce climate change. Numerous renewable or non-polluting energy alternatives exist, including wind and solar. In Ontario, nuclear power has risen to become the dominant supplier of energy. More of our remote communities can be tethered to main power lines, reducing the need for off-the-grid generators.

Energy Efficient Buildings

The fuel burned to heat our homes, offices, schools and shops is the third-leading contributor to climate change in Canada. Many of Canada’s buildings are old and drafty, making them highly inefficient. Similarly, many of our home appliances are power hungry and based on old technologies.

There is a long list of existing techniques and technologies that can be used to retrofit existing buildings and make them much more efficient. These include spray-foam insulation, high-efficiency furnaces, triple-paned windows, low-flow showerheads, and on-demand water heaters. In many cases, solar panels and geothermal systems can be added to a building to offset electricity use.

Even higher energy savings can be achieved when energy-wise decisions are incorporated during the design and construction of a building. Examples include planning for passive solar heating and cooling by positioning a building at the right angle relative to the sun and sourcing recycled materials during construction.

Improvements to our Transportation System

The transportation sector is Canada’s second-leading GHG contributor. Since the 1990s, emissions from privately owned cars have declined, owing to improvements in overall car design and fuel efficiency. Meanwhile, aviation, rail and marine transportation emissions have been on the rise, indicative of the expansion of commercial cargo operations[10].

Electric vehicles can be costly and their batteries can still have fairly large environmental impacts; however, electric motors are far more efficient than conventional gas and diesel engines. More importantly, when renewable energy sources are used to power them, total tailpipe emissions are reduced to zero. We discussed some of the benefits and drawbacks of electric vehicles in a previous blog post[11].

Better yet, though, would be to remove the need for cars in the first place. There are many existing technologies that can be employed to drastically reduce the need for cars, including high-speed trains to connect far-flung cities, airships to deliver people and goods into northern communities, and improved public transit systems and active transit infrastructure in our metropolitan areas.

And Much More…

The PCF outlines many additional steps Canada can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030[12]. Improved farming practices, reforestation and advances in carbon sequestration technologies can all have a positive impact.

New and Improved Regulations

Prior to the PCF’s announcement, the Government of Canada had already introduced or passed many pieces of legislation geared towards lowering emissions. Here are just a few examples.

Oil and Gas Sector

The oil and gas sector is Canada’s leading greenhouse gas contributor. From exploration to extraction to refining and transport, the oil and gas sector leaves heavy greenhouse gas footprints. One way to reduce emissions from this sector is to greatly reduce or eliminate fugitive emissions (which includes leaks, flaring and other un-intentional by-product emissions). Regulations are now being proposed that will mandate more stringent controls of these emissions.

Simple actions, like burning the methane that escapes from a well-head instead of releasing it to the atmosphere, can greatly reduce total emissions (because methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide). In total, the Government has estimated that their proposed regulations can eliminate upwards of 45% of total methane emissions from the oil and gas sector[13].

HFC Industries

Not long ago, refrigerators and air conditioners used CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons. Later, these gases were found to be destroying the ozone layer. In Canada and most other countries in the world, they have been replaced by HFCs, or hydrofluorocarbons, which are less damaging to the ozone layer but are themselves extremely powerful greenhouse gases (in some cases, thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide). More stringent regulations about how these chemicals are produced, shipped and utilized can help reduce their  release into the atmosphere.

Commercial Transport

Large commercial trucks and tractors are responsible for a relatively small yet still impactful slice of total emissions[14]. Improved regulations are now in place to mandate higher fuel efficiency and lower emissions. Commercial operators can alternatively apply for credits when they purchase hybrids or other more environmentally friendly alternatives[15].

Carbon Offsets: a different approach to managing the emissions problem

Even if Canada were to implement all the changes outlined in the PCF and enact and enforce all of its GHG regulations, we would still come up very short of our goal of reducing emissions to 30% below 2005 levels. However, all is not necessarily lost. Carbon offsets offer a different approach to meeting our targets.

From one (perhaps rather cynical) perspective, carbon offsets allow governments and industries to pay for the right to continue polluting. Carbon offsets are purchased by people, businesses and governments from third-party, accredited companies. These companies take the money they make from the sale of carbon credits to fund climate-friendly projects elsewhere in the world.

In principal, offsets can work. There are many countries in the world that can greatly reduce their emissions through better education and more up-to-date tools and methods, both of which can be funded externally. However, it can sometimes be very difficult to prove the long-term effectiveness of these projects. As such, there is still much controversy surrounding whether or not carbon offsets lead to meaningful, long-term and fair carbon emission reductions[16].

The provinces of Ontario and Quebec have promised to purchase a very large number of carbon offsets over the next few years, allowing many of their industries to continue to function and economies to grow.

Moving Forward

The combination of greenhouse gas reduction actions laid out in the PCF, existing and in-the-works regulations, and purchase of carbon offsets put Canada much closer to its 2030 target than ever before. However, there is still much work to be done[17].

There are important questions that need to be addressed regarding exactly how Canada plans to balance the need for greenhouse gas reductions with the desire for economic growth. Presently, the government is supporting the development of new oil and gas pipelines, which are directly tied to a significant expansion of tar sands operations. Consequently, the gap between projected emissions and the 2030 goal is widening[18].

What is clear is that Canada is in a state of transition. For now, fossil fuels are an indispensable part of our daily lives and part of the country’s economic backbone. Adopting the measures outlined by the PCF will take more time, more money and, most importantly, much more public support. But climate scientists have made it very clear that time is running out.


By Ryan Smith, Prairie Climate Centre


The Prairie Climate Centre is committed to making climate change meaningful and relevant to Canadians. We explain and communicate climate change through maps, videos, reports, and web content like this. Sign up for our mailing list to stay informed about our work and about new developments in climate change science and policy. Help us move Canada from climate risk to resilience.

[1] Prairie Climate Centre. “Where do Canada’s Greenhouse Gases come from?”

[2] Environment and Climate Change Canada. “Greenhouse gas emissions by Canadian economic sector.”

[3] Wikipedia. “List of countries by greenhouse gas emissions per capita.”

[4] Environment and Climate Change Canada. “Modelling of greenhouse gas projections.”

[5] Environment and Climate Change Canada. “Progress towards Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction target.”

[6] Government of Canada. “Canada’s Seventh National Communication on Climate Change and Third Biennial Report—Actions to meet commitments under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.” [pdf]

[7] The Pan Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change [pdf]

[8] Yale Climate Opinion Maps – Canada

[9] The Pan Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change [pdf]

[10] Environment and Climate Change Canada. “Greenhouse gas emissions by Canadian economic sector.”

[11] Prairie Climate Centre. “Can electric vehicles solve the climate crisis?”

[12] Environment and Climate Change Canada. The Pan Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change overview.

[13] Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change

[14] Environment and Climate Change Canada. “Greenhouse gas emissions by Canadian economic sector.”

[15] Government of Canada. “Heavy-duty Vehicle and Engine Greenhouse Gas Emission Regulations.”

[16] Desmog Canada. “The Carbon Offset Question: Will Canada Buy its Way to the Climate Finish Line?”

[17] Climate Action Tracker: Canada.

[18] Canoe. “Report shows revised gap in Liberal greenhouse gas target grew 50% in just 18 months.”

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