Canada saw a drop in greenhouse gas emissions during the first year of the pandemic: report

Canada's greenhouse gas emissions declined for the second year in a row in 2020 — the first year of the pandemic, when many Canadians stayed at home in response to mandatory lockdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Government report suggests that the economy can grow while emissions fall

People cross-country ski in cold weather past an industrial plant in Toronto on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

Canada's greenhouse gas emissions declined for the second year in a row in 2020 — the first year of the pandemic, when many Canadians stayed at home in response to mandatory lockdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Environment and Climate Change Canada submitted its 2020 National Inventory Report on emissions to the United Nations on Thursday. It shows total emissions in 2020 amounted to 672 megatonnes, down from 738 megatonnes in 2019.

The nation's 2019 numbers increased by 8 megatonnes to 738 megatonnes to account for changes in methodology. Reporting on emissions usually lags by several years and typically is released annually in April. 

The report shows total emissions dropped by 66 megatonnes in 2020, which is "equivalent to taking 20 million cars off the road," said Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault in a media statement.

The report cautions that 2020 could be a temporary blip.

"This is the first report that tracks the impacts of the pandemic on emissions in Canada," Guilbeault said. "So we must be mindful that overall emissions are likely to rebound to a degree as Canada's economy roars back to life."

The federal government's plan is to reduce emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. 

The report shows that Canada's economy can grow without increasing carbon emissions. The country's GDP grew 22 per cent between 2005 and 2020, but carbon emissions declined by 9.3 per cent over that period.

"This report confirms the continued decoupling taking place between Canada's economy and its emission performance," Guilbeault said in his statement.

"In other words, Canada is showing the world how we can do more while polluting less."

The report's breakdown of emissions by sector shows that the country's largest emitter, the oil and gas sector, saw its 2020 numbers fall from 203 to 179 megatonnes. Transportation — another high-emissions sector — saw its emissions decline from 185 megatonnes to 159 megatonnes.

Guilbeault said the reductions in the transportation sector were due "in large part" to Canadians avoiding flying and driving because of lockdowns, which in turn reduced the demand for oil and gas.

Watch | Parliamentary secretary to environment minister warns emissions may rebound next year

Pandemic 'absolutely' played a role in 2020 drop in greenhouse gas emissions, says parliamentary secretary

2 years ago
Duration 0:37
Canada's greenhouse gas emissions declined for the second year in a row in 2020 — the first year of the pandemic, when many Canadians stayed at home in response to mandatory lockdowns. It's good news, said MP Julie Dabrusin, parliamentary secretary to the environment minister — but she warns that next year probably won't see such a steep decline.

Meanwhile, the agriculture sector's emissions increased from 67 megatonnes to 69 megatonnes in 2020.

"Nonetheless, there are also real signs of progress within the data," Guillebeault said, citing the phasing-out of coal-fired electricity throughout the country.

None of the provinces or territories increased their total emissions, although Manitoba saw no change. Alberta remains the country's largest emitter among the provinces, followed by Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan.

Report improves methodology

The report included several methodological improvements which have led to better estimates of Canada's emissions in previous years. The emissions total for 2019, for example, was revised to 738 megatonnes from 730 megatonnes. 

Better estimates of methane emissions played a big part in that improvement. The colourless, odourless gas forms 14 per cent of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions and leaks from oil and gas equipment like pipes and tanks. Canada has an ambitious plan to cut methane emissions from the sector.

Dave Risk heads the FluxLab at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, a research group that studies methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. Its research suggested last year that methane emissions were 1.5 times higher than Canada's official inventory.

"I think it's definitely a positive development that the inventory has come under scrutiny and is being revised and the methodology has been improved, because we know from field studies that we have a gap from what we measure in the field and what the inventory suggests our emissions actually are," Risk said.

'The right direction'

Better methane measurements help pinpoint where the leaks are coming from and give the government a better sense of whether its regulations are working. The year 2020 was the first to see Canada's methane regulations in force, and Risk said the emissions numbers show they are working.

"There have been many oil and gas producers that have been diligent in achieving regulatory compliance and fixing leaks and doing that sort of thing. Others may be less diligent," he said.

"But in general, it's the first full year of regulations just completed and things are definitely going in the right direction."


David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories. He can be reached at david.thurton@cbc.ca