5.1 GHG emissions in Canada


Although Canada’s overall emissions increased by 22.8% from 1990 to 20051, they have remained roughly stable from 2005 to 2019 (-1.1%). As Figure 5.1 shows, energy-related emissions make up 80.7% of total emissions, a share that has remained stable since 2005. Although emissions growth halted early in the 21st century, it has not budged since, despite reduction objectives and a significant number of policies to help achieve them, supported by considerable governmental expenditure. The rest of this section provides a more detailed portrait of emissions.

The plateau in total GHG emissions noted from 2005 to 2019 is associated with an overall decrease in emission intensity, as expressed by the following two metrics:

  • Adjusted to population growth, per capita emissions were 15.2% lower in 2019 than in 2005;
  • Over that same period, carbon intensity per constant dollar of GDP was reduced by almost 26.9%.

These metrics reflect transformations in the industrial sector, technological improvements, regulations, and more efficient equipment and practices (WDI 2021; ECCC 2021; Statistics Canada 2021).

Figure 5.1 – GHG Emissions in Canada by sector #

Source: ECCC 2021

A closer look at the main sources of emissions in 1990, 2005 and 2019 (Figure 5.1) reveals significant variations across categories. From 1990 to 2005, emissions increased in most sectors—with the notable exception of industries outside of oil and gas. Although the reasons for these increases differ considerably across the various categories, the main driver was a higher energy demand due to increased activities in each of the sectors. 

The period from 2005 to 2019 shows a different picture. Emissions from the building sectors (residential, commercial and institutional) remained constant—growth was compensated by emission intensity reduction derived from efficiency gains, which include greater use of electricity—while emissions from electricity and heat production and industries outside of oil and gas fell significantly (-56.2Mt and -3.6Mt respectively). Fuel switching was responsible for most of the emissions reductions in the electricity sector as Ontario retired coal and replaced it with natural gas. The ongoing phase out of coal-fired power generation on a national scale should lead to more reductions over the next few years.

Conversely, the GHG share of the oil, gas and refining industries has grown systematically over the last 30 years, climbing from 15.7% in 1990 to 19.3% in 2005 and reaching 23.6% of the total in 2019. Despite technological improvements in oil sands production, which reduced emissions per barrel by 12% from 2005 to 2015 (NRCAN 2021a), this sector contributes close to one-third of energy-related emissions. A similar pattern is observed for the transport sector, whose share of emissions grew unabatedly from 24.1% in 1990 to 25.7% in 2005, and to 29.7% of the total in 2019. Together these two sectors are responsible for more than half the country’s emissions; they also underwent the most rapid increase in absolute terms over the entire 1990-2019 period.

Figure 5.2 – GHG Emissions by province #

Source: ECCC 2021

Breaking down total emissions by province (Figure 5.2) shows that all oil and gas producing provinces, including British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador, showed a systematic growth in their total emissions over the 30-year period; apart from Manitoba, all the other provinces post lower emissions than in 1990. However, this reduction is only slight. 

Owing to the importance of its oil and gas sector, Alberta has by far the largest emissions on a provincial basis. Saskatchewan’s emissions are also much larger than its population or economic size would suggest. These two provinces also show the greatest increase in overall GHG emissions over both the 1990-2005 and the 2005-2019 periods, a direct result of increased oil and gas production. 

These trends also led to a wide discrepancy in per capita emissions between Alberta and Saskatchewan on the one hand, and all other provinces on the other. This includes British Columbia, which showed a 18% decline in per capita emissions between 1990 and 2019, despite a growth in gas production-related emissions (Figure 5.3). 

As Figure 5.3 indicates, a large part of the growth in Alberta and Saskatchewan is due to the importance of the oil and gas sector (including fugitive sources). However, larger per capita figures for the transport sector, a greater presence of fossil fuels in electricity generation, and the immense importance of the agriculture sector in the case of Saskatchewan, also contribute to this trend.

Figure 5.3 – Evolution of per capita GHG Emissions in Canada #

Note: Due to data availability, 1990 figures use 1991 population data for Nunavut and Northwest Territories
Source: ECCC 2021; Statistics Canada 2021

Figure 5.4 – Per capita emissions outside of the oil and gas sector, by province (2019) #

Note: Due to data availability, 1990 figures use 1991 population data for Nunavut and Northwest Territories 
Source: ECCC 2021; Statistics Canada 2021


1 The years 1990 and 2005 are used as two reference points in GHG emissions charts in this section as they are the two reference years most commonly used in developing GHG reduction targets. The most recent GHG emission data available for Canada at the time of writing is for 2019.