Fact check: have GHG emissions risen under Trudeau?

The NDP went on the attack against Justin Trudeau and the Liberals on climate change Tuesday, saying that emissions have grown since 2016 when the government ratified the Paris Climate agreement. But is this true?

NDP claim is technically true, but experts point to several caveats

Have emissions gone up in Trudeau's tenure as Prime Minister, as the NDP says? (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

The NDP attacked Justin Trudeau and the Liberals' record on climate change Tuesday, asserting that in spite of big promises, the Grits have failed to lower greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in Canada.

Trudeau and Singh traded barbs Tuesday on the campaign trail over plans to address climate change and lower emissions.

"In 2016, Justin Trudeau ratified the Paris Agreement with a commitment to reduce emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. He promised 'an ambitious plan to reduce emissions,'" the NDP said in a news release.

"Since then, Canada's emissions have only grown – faster than any other G7 nation."

In signing the Paris Climate Agreement, the government initially committed to lowering emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The Liberal government has since adopted a more ambitious target of 40 to 45 per cent by 2030.

But have emissions gone up since that agreement was signed in 2016, which was also the first full year of Justin Trudeau's Liberal government?

With climate change a top issue for many voters this election, CBC decided to fact-check that charge.

What goes up may come down

Strictly speaking, the NDP's statement is true when looking at the official data currently available.

In 2016, Canada's GHG emissions were 707 megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent, according to government data. In 2019, the most recent year data are available, that number was 730. Emissions rose slightly from 2018 to 2019 from 728 to 730.

But there are some important nuances to the issue, experts say. The lack of data for 2020, for example, may help the NDP's point.

"It's good that they didn't include 2020, because with COVID of course there were lots of dramatic changes to activity and thus also to emissions," said Felix Pretis, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Victoria and co-director of the Climate Econometrics Research Project.

Kathryn Harrison, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia who studies climate politics, agrees.

"It is very likely that they fell from 2019 to 2020, because of economic contraction during the pandemic — but we don't have that data yet."

It's important to note that GHG emissions have mostly levelled off since the turn of the millennium after rising steadily throughout the nineties.

One might conclude, based on the veracity of the NDP's claim, that the Trudeau government's policies on climate change aren't effective at reducing emissions. But both Pretis and Harrison say that's not necessarily the case.

Pretis cites the introduction of carbon pricing as an example, which came into effect in 2019.

"We wouldn't expect to see a change in emissions in the same year," he said. "When you put this sort of mechanism in place, a pricing mechanism, it takes a couple of years until we really see a change."

"This past performance of 2016 to 2019 is not necessarily indicative of future performance."

He adds that as the price on carbon goes up — the party plans to raise it to $170 per tonne by 2030 — the policy will have even more of an impact.

UBC political scientist Kathryn Harrison says policies introduced by the Liberal government to fight climate change may not show their effects immediately. (CBC)

Harrison says it's a policy "lag" the NDP could expect to see with many of its own pledges on fighting climate change.

She also points out that the Liberals have never promised that GHG emission reductions would be linear — that a drop would start in 2016 and continue all the way until reaching the Paris Agreement target in 2030. The Liberals, in other words, may still be able to claim that their plan to reduce emissions and combat climate change is ambitious and on track.

"When you're on an upward trajectory, policies that are working may initially only level off emissions," Harrison said. 

"It would be interesting to see how Mr. Singh's government would deliver immediate reductions.". 

Pretis adds that while Canada has seen a small rise in absolute emissions from 2016 to 2019, emissions per capita have been roughly flat. 

Most of the growth, the two experts say, is because of changes in transportation and oil and gas extraction.

Comparing Canada

The NDP may have good reason to single out Canada within the G7.

Many European countries have seen emissions fall in the past few years, an accomplishment Canada cannot claim. The UK saw GHG emissions drop 2.8 per cent in 2019 compared with the previous year.

"They introduced climate legislation much earlier," Pretis said. "So we have the UK Climate Change Act, which came into effect in the late 2000s, that really started biting a couple of years after that."

The European Union, Harrison says, deserves particular praise in this area. It saw a 3.7 per cent decline in GHG emissions from 2018 to 2019.

"The EU has really led in ambitious climate policies," she said.

The U.S. has seen a decline in emissions since 2005, but not because of a determined government plan — it's largely because coal has become less economical as a power source.

Harrison notes that Canada's population growth may be contributing to its comparatively poor performance in lowering emissions. Canada's population has grown more quickly than Germany's over the past two decades, for example.

While both experts say there are caveats to the NDP's criticism, they still say it's important that Canada lower emissions and not just keep them steady.

"It's important to be forward looking," Pretis said.

"We will need high levels of carbon pricing in order to see a substantial change in emissions, and that's ultimately where we have to get to if we want to reach net zero, which is something that we should all be doing."

Fact check: True.