How Canada's provinces are tackling greenhouse gas emissions

As Ontario prepares to join Quebec and California as the third jurisdiction in North America to adopt a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, we take a look at what other actions some of Canada's biggest emitters are taking to tackle greenhouse gases.

Emissions regulation is a mixed bag, with Ontario joining Quebec to adopt cap-and-trade system

Many provinces are still struggling to get their greenhouse gas emissions under control and are far from reaching the reduction targets they've set for themselves for 2020. (Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters)

As Ontario prepares to join Quebec and California as the third jurisdiction in North America to adopt a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, we take a look at what other actions some of Canada's biggest emitters are taking to tackle greenhouse gases (GHG).

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Emissions target: 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020

2012 emissions*:

  • Total: 699 Mt CO2 eq.
  • Per capita: 20.1 tonnes CO2 eq.

(Mt CO2 eq. is megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, the standard international unit of measurement for reporting GHG emissions. It expresses all greenhouse gases emissions in terms of the global warming potential of carbon dioxide, CO2. One megatonne is equal to one million tonnes.)

% change from 1990: +18 per cent


Coal — New restrictions on coal-fired power plants come into force July 1, 2015, limiting emissions to 420 tonnes of CO2 per gigawatt-hour of electricity produced per year. Most coal plants won't be subject to the limits until 2020, and some think the legislation won't start having a significant effect on emissions until 2030, which is when the oldest plants will come under the regulation.

Fuel — The transportation sector is the second-largest contributor to emissions, accounting for 25 per cent. Regulations passed in 2010 require an average of five per cent renewable content in gasoline and two per cent in diesel fuel and heating oil.

New fuel emissions standards for passenger cars and light trucks were introduced last year to align with existing U.S. regulations. The government says these will ensure that by 2025, cars will use 50 per cent less fuel than 2008 models.


Emissions target: 33 per cent below 2007 levels by 2020

2012 emissions:

  • Total: 60.1 Mt CO2 eq.**
  • Per capita: 13.2 tonnes CO2 eq.

% change from 1990: +21.7 per cent (6.5 per cent below 2007 levels)

% of Canada's total emissions: 8.6 per cent


Carbon tax — Introduced in 2008, the tax on fossil fuels now stands at $30/tonne of CO2 eq. and applies to gasoline, diesel, natural gas, heating fuel, propane and coal — and to peat and tires when used to produce energy. Revenue raised, which was $1.21 billion in fiscal year 2013/14, goes toward lowering other taxes. The tax covers about 70 per cent of B.C.'s emissions, and it's estimated it will reduce emissions by about three million tonnes annually by 2020.

Christy Clark cancelled B.C.'s plans to adopt a carbon cap-and-trade system when she became premier in 2011. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)
Cap and trade — B.C. is a member of the Western Climate Initiative under which several U.S. states and four Canadian provinces have agreed to establish a regional cap-and-trade program and set a regional emissions-reduction target of 15 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

B.C. has the legislation in place to implement a cap-and-trade system, but the Liberal government of Christy Clark cancelled plans to launch the program in 2012. Only Quebec, California — and now Ontario — have moved forward. 

Electricity — B.C.'s Clean Energy Act requires that 93 per cent of the province's electricity comes from clean or renewable sources and aims to make B.C. a net exporter of clean electricity. The province recently redefined natural gas as clean energy if it's used to power liquefied natural gas plants as part of its plans to expand the LNG sector.

Coal — B.C. has abandoned coal-fired electricity generation in favour of renewables but is still Canada's biggest exporter of coal. In 2014, it exported more than 28 million tonnes.

Fuel — B.C.'s Renewable and Low Carbon Fuel Requirements Regulation requires:

  • at least five per cent renewable content for gasoline and diesel;
  • 10 per cent reduction in carbon intensity of transportation fuels by 2020. Carbon intensity measures the CO2 equivalent emissions of fuel per unit of energy.

One study suggested the switch to low-carbon fuels accounts for one-quarter of B.C.'s 6.5 per cent reduction in emissions from 2007 levels.

Public sector — B.C.'s carbon neutral policy requires Crown corporations, universities, health facilities and other government operations to track emissions and reduce them to zero or purchase carbon offsets, but the program, which exempts some operations such as BC Ferries, has been plagued by problems.

In 2013, the government was forced to dissolve the Pacific Carbon Trust, the body charged with selling offsets and investing in GHG-reducing projects, after a scathing auditor-general's report that found the trust misspent money on ineffective projects and concluded the public sector had failed to become carbon neutral.


Emissions target:  50 Mt CO2 eq. below "business as usual," i.e. what emissions would be if no action were taken, by 2020. By 2050: 50 per cent below projected "business as usual" and 14 per cent below 2005 levels.

The province's auditor-general has recently critized the province for not adequately implementing or monitoring its emissions-reduction strategies.

2012 emissions:

  • Total: 249 Mt CO2 eq.
  • Per capita: 64 tonnes CO2 eq.

% difference from 1990: +50 per cent

% of Canada's total emissions: 35.6 per cent


Emissions — Alberta is the country's largest emitter but was also the first province to regulate greenhouse gas emissions with the 2003 Climate Change and Emissions Management Act (and later the Specified Gas Emitters Regulation).

Existing facilities that emit more than 100,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas per year have to cap their emissions intensity at 12 per cent below their average for 2003-2005. Facilities built in the last 15 years can phase in the cap over eight years.

Emissions intensity doesn't measure emissions in absolute terms but factors in GDP to measure GHG as a unit of production. This means that if production increases, emissions can increase and still fall within the target. Alberta has estimated that its absolute emissions won't begin to decline until 2020.

The Syncrude oilsands mine north of Fort McMurray, Alta. Fossil-fuel extraction and processing accounts for the bulk of Alberta's greenhouse gas emissions. (Todd Korol /Reuters)

Emitters pay a penalty of $15 for every tonne over their limit. The money is invested in "emission reduction technologies" by the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation.

Emitters can purchase credits to offset emissions from those who have already reached their targets or are not subject to the regulations but have voluntarily reduced emissions.

Alberta's emissions-reduction strategy relies heavily on carbon capture and storage (CCS), which Alberta's own premier has called expensive and unproven. The province plans to reduce 70 per cent of its emissions through CCS, but the July 2014 auditor-general's report found it will meet less than 10 per cent of that goal.

Electricity — Alberta was the first to create a position of associate minister of electricity and renewable energy. About 90 per cent of electricity in government buildings comes from renewable sources. Provincewide, about 43 per cent of electricity generated in 2013 came from coal, and 40 per cent from natural gas.


Emissions target: 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020

2012 emissions:

  • Total: 78.3 Mt CO2 eq.
  • Per capita: 9.7 tonnes CO2 eq.

% change from 1990: -7 per cent

% of Canada's total emissions: 11.2 per cent


Cap and trade — Quebec implemented its cap-and-trade system in 2013 for companies that emit 25,000 tonnes of CO2 eq. or more annually and fossil fuel distributors. It set a minimum auction price of $10.75 for the first year, which increases five per cent plus inflation each year until 2020. It linked up its carbon market with California's in November 2014.

Most of Quebec's energy comes from renewable sources, such as hydro power. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)
The government estimates the cap-and-trade system will raise $2.8 billion by 2020, which will go into Quebec's Green Fund to finance projects outlined in its
Climate Change Action Plan.

Energy — It's no accident that Quebec is one of the few provinces to have reduced its emissions from 1990 levels: 97 per cent of the electricity it generates comes from renewable sources. While hydro power is its biggest strength, it has also invested heavily in wind power and aims to generate about 10 per cent of its power through wind by this year.

Other emissions-reduction targets for 2020: Divert all organic material from landfill; electric or hybrid vehicles to make up 25 per cent of all light passenger vehicles.


Emissions target: 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020

2012 emissions:

  • Total: 167 Mt CO2 eq.
  • Per capita: 12.5 tonnes CO2 eq.

% change from 1990: -5.6 per cent

% of Canada's total emissions: 23.9 per cent


Energy — The Green Energy Act of 2009 began the province's transition to clean energy. It launched financial incentives for wind, solar and biomass power-generation projects and green construction and created the feed-in tariff program by which producers of renewable energy are paid premium rates to supply the power grid.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne says the province intends to join a cap-and-trade system that so far includes Quebec and California. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)
Coal — The province closed its last coal-fired generating plant in 2014, completing its phase-out of coal, which was providing 25 per cent of the province's energy as recently as 12 years ago.

Cap and trade — Ontario has been a part of the Western Climate Initiative since it was formed in 2007 and on Monday announced it would proceed with setting up a cap-and trade-system. Facilities that emit more than 25,000 tonnes of CO2 eq. have had to report their emissions annually since 2010.

Fuel — Ontario has committed to reducing carbon content in transportation fuels by 10 per cent by 2020.


Emissions target: 20 per cent below 2006 levels by 2020

2012 emissions:

  • Total: 74.8 Mt CO2 eq.
  • Per capita: 68.8 tonnes CO2 eq.

% change from 1990: +72 per cent

% of Canada's total emissions: 10.7 per cent


Emissions — The province passed a Management and Reduction of Greenhouse Gases Act in 2010 that enables it to regulate emissions but has not yet implemented limits or required emitters to track emissions.

Coal pits south of Estevan, Sask. Unlike Ontario, Saskatchewan has no plans to phase out coal, which supplies about 44 per cent of its electricity. (Troy Fleece/Canadian Press)
Saskatchewan is Canada's second-largest oil producer, and growth in the oil and gas sector as well as potash mining and the expansion of coal-fired power generation have made it the highest per capita emitter.

Coal — About 44 per cent of Saskatchewan's electricity comes from coal-fired generation. The province has no plans to phase it out but instead intends to retrofit existing units to include carbon capture and storage technology — and has already announced one such $1.4 billion project.

*All emissions data is based on Canada's 2014 national inventory submission to the UN Framework for Climate Change.

**B.C. Ministry of Environment figures give a higher total of 61.5 Mt CO2 eq. because they include activities like deforestation, not included in the national inventory.


Kazi Stastna

Senior Producer

Kazi Stastna is a senior producer with She has worked as a features writer and copy editor with CBC's digital news team for over a decade. Prior to that, she was at the Montreal Gazette and worked as a reporter and editor in Germany and the Czech Republic.