Edmonton's greenhouse gas emissions have gone down. The city is studying why.

Greenhouse gas emissions in the City of Edmonton are dropping, data shows — and work is being done to find out exactly why.

Emissions dropped to 17.3M tonnes in 2019, then 15.7M tonnes in 2020

The City of Edmonton's 2021 emissions data should be released some time in early 2022, after calculations are complete, said Chandra Tomaras, director of environment and climate resilience. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Total greenhouse gas emissions in the City of Edmonton dropped by the equivalent of 2.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide over two years, data shows — and work is being done to find out exactly why.

Total emissions hovered around the 18-million-tonne range from 2015 to 2018. In 2019, emissions dropped about 900,000 tonnes to 17.3 million tonnes. In 2020, emissions totalled 15.7 million tonnes, data shows.

"I am incredibly excited that we've finally peaked and are on the decline for emissions," said Chandra Tomaras, the city's director of environment and climate resilience, a section of the environment, climate change and energy department.

"It's very encouraging and has me really optimistic that these big, bold targets are achievable."

The city's 2021 emissions data should be released some time in early 2022, after calculations are complete, Tomaras said.

The city tracks how much greenhouse gases it emits each year through burning fossil fuels, decomposition of waste and landfill sites, industrial processes, chemical use, and livestock and land. It also tracks how much emissions are naturally absorbed from the air through vegetation, such as urban forests and the river valley.

In 2015, council approved the Community Energy Transition Strategy. By 2035, it aims to cut emissions by 35 per cent, energy consumption by 25 per cent and see 10 per cent of Edmonton's electricity locally generated, compared to 2005 levels.

By 2019, however, global research suggested those goals wouldn't be enough to limit global warming and prevent the worst impacts of climate change.

The city declared a climate emergency and moved to amend its strategy so its goals aligned to prevent an 1.5-degree temperature increase.

In April, the updated strategy was released. It's a phased plan to make Edmonton a carbon-neutral city by 2050, with emissions targets the city will aim to hit along the way.

The first target: emit the equivalent of 11.8 million tonnes of CO2 in 2025.

City studying emissions decrease

The emissions decrease correlates with the city's climate emergency declaration, but Tomaras said she's currently unable to definitively say there's a link between the two.

"We're trying to understand [how] actions we have taken are contributing to that," she said.

"We're talking about significant and transformational action needed. And we're really scaling up and starting that."

Part of that can be attributed to things like Alberta phasing out coal with natural gas to power electrical plants, she said.

But her team is also investigating the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on emissions.

After the pandemic was declared in March 2020, many people shifted to working from home to avoid the potential spread of the novel coronavirus.

This appears to have resulted in fewer emissions stemming from transportation and commercial buildings, Tomaras said.

Her team is supposed to present an update about emissions tracking to council some time in the second quarter of fiscal 2022, she said. The hope is to better understand the data by then.

The City of Calgary also saw a sharp decrease in emissions in 2020, data shows. Emissions in 2020 dropped to 15.75 million tonnes in 2020 — the lowest since at least 2005.

Per person emissions continue downward

The city also tracks the tonnes of emissions per person, which have declined year-over-year since at least 2015, data shows.

The average Edmontonian emitted 25.6 tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2005 — the baseline year.

That figure dropped to 21.1 tonnes per person in 2015.

By 2020, Edmontonians were emitting 15 tonnes on average — 6.1 tonnes less in six years.

The city is working to better understand that downward trend too, Tomaras said. But generally, per capita emissions are dropping because of efficiency, such as more fuel efficient vehicles and people switching to LED light bulbs.

"It shows that this is doable, this is achievable," she said.

"It shows, too, the importance of doing these types of interventions and setting new standards related to the products that we use and the energy that we use."

Further climate action

As Edmonton rings in 2022, it will be entering the final year of Phase 1 of the revised energy-transition strategy.

This phase lays the groundwork for the accelerated climate action the city will take throughout the rest of the decade in Phase 2, the strategy states.

"The city has a good climate plan," said Conrad Nobert, president of the Tomorrow Foundation for a Sustainable Future, an environmental organization in Edmonton.

"But it needs to act much more quickly and much more aggressively to meet its targets."

Conrad Nobert, president of the Tomorrow Foundation for a Sustainable Future, likes the city's climate plan, but says it needs to act quickly and aggressively. (Conrad Nobert/Supplied)

Tomaras listed multiple initiatives the city has taken to cut down on emissions in the short-term, such as extending the LRT network, installing solar panels on some city facilities, and installing protected bike lanes downtown and expanding that network.

Nobert, however, suggested the city immediately cancel the expansion of Yellowhead Trail, and create some bus-only lanes on the roads throughout the city, making it less convenient to drive. He also suggests expanding the bike lane network by about 20 kilometres per year.

Bus and bike lanes would be cheap options to cut emissions, because the city already owns the roads, he explained.

Regardless, Tomaras knows there is much left to do in order to hit the city's 2025 emissions target.

Some of the challenges ahead include funding as the city recovers financially from COVID-19, as well as helping Edmontonians adjust to the transformations that will be taking place, she said.


Nicholas Frew is a CBC Saskatchewan reporter based in Regina, who specializes in producing data-driven stories. Hailing from Newfoundland and Labrador, Frew moved to Halifax to attend journalism school. He has previously worked for CBC newsrooms in Manitoba and Alberta. Before joining CBC, he interned at the Winnipeg Free Press. You can reach him at nick.frew@cbc.ca.