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Greenhouse gas emissions rose in 2021, but climate experts still see positive signs

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OTTAWA -

Several climate change experts said Friday they see reason for hope in Canada's efforts to slow global warming even though the country's greenhouse gas emissions rose slightly in 2021.

The annual inventory of Canada's emissions for 2021, published Friday, showed emissions from all sources that year added up to 670 million tonnes. That's up from 659 million tonnes in 2020.

Typically any increase in emissions would leave environment activists deflated. This time it didn't.

"Canada's latest emissions reporting contains a rare kernel of good news," said Rachel Doran, director of policy and strategy at Clean Energy Canada.

Although emissions edged higher, they remained below both the pre-pandemic level in 2019 and the 2005 level, which is the comparison target for Canada's 2030 emissions goal.

Emissions in 2020 plunged to their lowest levels in more than two decades, as COVID-19 kept cars off the road, planes on the ground and big industrial companies were forced to slow operations or stop them entirely for weeks at a time.

While those activities were not back to normal levels in 2021, there were fewer lockdowns, so it was expected that emissions would be higher. But Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said they didn't rebound as much as expected.

"The smaller than expected increase in emissions shows that Canada's economic growth continues to be cleaner and less polluting than before," he said.

Often emissions grow in parallel to the economy, but in 2021 the economy grew 4.6 per cent while emissions edged up 1.7 per cent.

The report suggests that more fuel-efficient cars and a growing number of electric vehicles are starting to have an impact on emissions from road transportation, that Canada's effort to wean itself off coal as a source of electricity has had a significant impact on emissions from power plants, and that national regulations requiring oil and gas companies to stop methane from leaking out of oil and gas wells are succeeding.

Caroline Brouillette, interim executive director at Climate Action Network Canada, said the 2021 numbers prove Canada's emissions curve is starting to bend.

"The big takeaway from this year's National Inventory Report is that climate policy is working -- and that we need more of it," said Brouillette.

Greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane are produced from activities we rely on, including driving cars, making steel and aluminium, mining metals, heating homes and buildings, and producing the fossil fuels to do all of those things.

After being emitted, the greenhouse gases can stay in the atmosphere for centuries, trapping heat inside and warming the earth. That in turn leads to extreme weather such as droughts and intense storms.

The oil and gas sector produces 28 per cent of Canada's total emissions, while all transportation -- road, rail, plane and boat -- contributes 22 per cent. Another 13 per cent comes from operating buildings, including heating and cooling devices like furnaces, air conditioners and water heaters.

Heavy industry contributes 11 per cent of the total, agriculture accounts for 10 per cent, electricity generation for eight per cent and waste for seven per cent.

Canada's new 2030 target is to push emissions from all sources down so they are 40 to 45 per cent lower than they were in 2005. In 2021, they were 8.5 per cent lower than in 2005.

To meet that in absolute terms Canada has to eliminate four times as many emissions by 2030 as it did between 2005 and 2021.

Canadian Climate Institute principal economist Dave Sawyer said that means the promised policies to cap oil and gas emissions and mandate the sale of more electric vehicles must be implemented.

Guilbeault published draft regulations in December that would require 20 per cent of new passenger vehicles sold in Canada to be powered by electricity by 2026, growing to 60 per cent by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2035. Those regulations still need to be finalized.

In 2021, five per cent of all new vehicles registered were fully electric or plug-in hybrids.

Guilbeault will also outline the specifics for the oil and gas emissions cap later this year, and it's a policy that will be met with stiff opposition from both the provincial government in Alberta and the oil and gas industry. The government and the industry do not agree on what is a realistic goal for the sector's emissions by 2030.

Mark Cameron, vice-president of external relations at the Pathways Alliance, said in a statement Friday the increase in emissions from the oilsands was expected because production increased to respond to rising global demand.

But he said the alliance, which is made up of Canada's biggest oilsands companies, has already cut emissions per barrel of oil produced by 22 per cent since 2011, and is investing to install carbon capture and storage systems that could cut oilsands emissions 12 to 14 per cent by 2030.

"Climate change is a critical challenge and as one of Canada's largest CO2 emitters, the oilsands industry has an important role to play in helping meet the national ambition of net-zero emissions by 2050," said Cameron.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2023.

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