Canadian Greenhouse Gas Emissions: 1990 - 2000

Larry Hughes and Sandy Scott
Whale Lake Research Institute
P.O. Box 631, Station M, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. B3J 2T3

This is an earlier version of a paper that appeared in Energy Conversion and Management, vol. 38, no. 3, 1997.


The recent Berlin conference on the changing atmosphere has highlighted two major problems: first, the planet's atmospheric chemistry is undergoing radical and potentially dangerous changes from the anthropomorphic emission of a variety of gases; and second, despite promises and treaty obligations, a number of countries (including the United States, Australia, and Canada) are hindering efforts to stabilize these emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. An examination of the Canadian government's own data for carbon dioxide and methane emissions from energy sources indicates why the Canadian stabilization target cannot be met: gross emissions are increasing, per capita emissions are increasing, and emissions in terms of gross domestic product are showing minimal change.


The greenhouse effect is one of the processes that permits life to exist on this planet [1]. A percentage of solar radiation is trapped by clouds, water vapour, and other trace amounts of atmospheric gases (notably carbon dioxide and ozone), thereby keeping the planet's average temperature at 15°C; without the greenhouse effect, the planet's temperature would drop to -18°C and the planet would be covered with ice [2]. On the other hand, increasing the levels of some existing trace gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) or the addition of entirely new gases (notably chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs), could significantly alter the planet's average temperature [3].

Over the past decade, the term 'greenhouse effect' has become synonymous with the anthropomorphic emission of gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and CFCs and the associated impact these gases would have upon the planet's atmosphere. Computer models and other studies have shown that the expected long term effects of these emissions could result in significant climate changes [4] with potentially devastating results [5].

In the 1980s, the greenhouse effect and its potential for climate change was seen by many Canadian politicians as a vote-catching vehicle with untold photo-ops. With little or no justification, Canadians were told that the world looked upon Canada as an environmental leader. These claims were reinforced in a variety of ways: Canada hosted the 1988 Toronto World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere, put the world's first 'green plan' into action in 1990 [6], and endorsed the 1992 Rio Protocol. At the Toronto conference, Canada agreed to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent of 1988 levels by the year 2005 [7]. By 1990, when it was discovered that a 20 per cent cut in emissions could not be achieved, Canada pledged to stabilize its carbon dioxide emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000.

The 1995 Berlin conference on the changing atmosphere finally indicated that the vast majority of Canadians have done little more than talk about the greenhouse effect. An examination of the Canadian government's own data for carbon dioxide and methane emissions from energy sources shows why the stabilization target cannot be met: gross emissions are increasing, per capita emissions are increasing, and emissions in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) are showing minimal change. Without a radical departure from the existing 'lifestyle' of most Canadians, there appears to be little hope for stabilizing CO2 emissions or meeting any other reduction target.

Canadian Energy Requirements: 1975 -- 2000

Canada, the second largest country in the world, is blessed (some would say cursed) with an abundance of coal, oil, natural gas, hydro-electricity and wood. The availability of cheap energy supplies has allowed Canada to attain one of the world's highest standards of living while at the same time encouraging a spendthrift attitude with respect to energy-usage. Furthermore, in those regions that do not have direct access to cheap energy, government subsidies are used to help defray energy costs.

Energy Demand

The effect of cheap energy is most readily demonstrated by examining Canadian historical and projected energy demand for the period 1975 through 2000. Energy statistics are produced by a number of different Canadian government departments; of these, the National Energy Board (NEB) is a main source of energy supply and demand information (both historical and projected), which it publishes periodically.

The NEB divides the demand information into a number of sectors; notably residential, commercial, industrial, transport (road and other), electrical generation, and non-energy (e.g., refinery losses). Table 1 details historical Canadian energy demand for the years 1975 through 1990, while the years 1995 and 2000 are projections based upon the continuing use of current technology (producing the lowest NEB growth projection for this period). The total end use (i.e., the total energy demand from all sectors) has been expected to grow by more than 43 per cent over this 25 year period. The average annual growth has been forecast to increase at a slightly higher rate over the 10 year projected period (1.6 per cent) than during the 15 year historical period (1.5 per cent).

Table 1: Canadian Energy Demand by Sector: 1975 - 2000 (Petajoules)

Sector 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000
Residential 1321.8 1396.5 1392.0 1449.9 1475.5 1512.8
Commercial 696.7 778.6 821.3 892.8 959.1 1022.0
Industrial 2019.8 2399.4 2342.3 2540.6 2743.5 3081.3
Transport (Road) 1286.2 1544.6 1414.5 1513.4 1584.9 1720.0
Transport (Other) 338.1 417.2 320.0 382.0 404.4 449.4
Non-energy 356.0 524.4 607.0 632.6 757.2 846.5
Total End Use 6018.6 7060.8 6897.0 7411.3 7924.4 8631.8
Electrical Generation 1525.0 2079.9 2577.4 2952.2 3439.7 3874.5
Primary Demand 7078.6 8426.9 8497.0 9237.4 10109.2 11107.0

The total yearly electrical demand is also shown in this Table; over the same 25 year period, electrical demand has been predicted to rise by 154 per cent. Part of this increase can be attributed to the growing use of electrical devices and electric space heating in the residential and commercial sectors. The final row of Table 1 lists the primary energy demand (i.e., the total energy demand from all sectors, including electrical generation), which increases by almost 57 per cent from 7078.6 PJ (petajoules) in 1975 to 11107.0 PJ in 2000.

It is worth noting that in 1975, Canada's population was approximately 22.5×106 [8], giving a per capita energy demand of 315 GJ (gigajoules). By the year 2000, when the population is expected to reach 31.5×106, per capita energy demand will increase some 12 per cent to 353 GJ. Over the 25 year period, the rise in demand for energy (57 per cent) exceeds the growth in population (40 per cent).

Energy Supply

For the most part, Canadian energy demand is met by indigenous sources: coal (mined in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia), oil and natural gas (found primarily in British Columbia and Alberta), and hydro-electric (with major dam sites in British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland). A number of nuclear facilities exist in Ontario and New Brunswick.

The NEB information on energy supply for the 1975 to 2000 period is given in Table 2. The table shows a growth in all energy sources over this period with the exception of oil, which from a peak of 3763.7 PJ in 1975 falls to a low of 3045.4 PJ in 1985, before climbing back to 3590.7 PJ by the year 2000. The reason for the decline in oil demand in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the series of so-called 'oil shocks' that hit the western industrialized nations when the price of oil skyrocketed to $40 U.S. per barrel. Prior to this, most of Canada's non-hydro-electric energy demand was satisfied by oil (much of it, especially in the eastern provinces, imported); at the time of the oil shocks, a number of provincial governments opted for indigenous coal or natural gas as a replacement for oil.

Table 2: Canadian Energy Supply by Fuel: 1975 - 2000 (Petajoules)

Fuel Source 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 2000
Nuclear 114.2 445.8 693.7 823.1 1156.5 1237.0
Hydro-electric 734.5 844.9 973.8 1018.8 1112.2 1192.7
Coal 580.7 823.7 1015.7 1050.6 1102.5 1246.6
Oil 3763.7 3964.6 3045.4 3268.7 3309.4 3590.7
Natural Gas 1573.5 1786.8 2099.1 2299.7 2555.6 2837.3
Biomass 360.6 455.3 514.5 530.8 569.2 626.2

The result of these decisions made in the late 1970s has been a marked increase in the use of coal (for electrical generation) and natural gas (for electrical generation and space heating). For example, the use of coal and natural gas has been forecast to increase by 115 per cent and 85 per cent, respectively, over the 25 year period. Furthermore, despite the replacement of oil by other fuels, the demand for oil (both domestic and imported) is increasing in both the industrial and transportation sectors.

Canadian Carbon Dioxide Emissions: 1990 -- 2000

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an odourless, colourless gas that can be produced by the combustion of carbon-based materials such as coal, oil, natural gas, or biomass. Worldwide, human activities have resulted in a 13 per cent rise in the concentration of CO2 over the period 1959 through 1993 [9]. The NEB began including carbon dioxide emissions levels in their 1991 data [10] and continued to do so in their 1994 data [11].

Carbon Dioxide Emissions by Fuel

Carbon dioxide emissions in Canada come from three major sources: coal, oil, and natural gas; the NEB does not consider biomass to be an emission source since it is considered to be a net sink, removing CO2 from the atmosphere. The expected growth in demand over the 1990 to 2000 period (from Table 2) is coal (18.6 per cent), oil (9.8 per cent), and natural gas (23.4 per cent). Since there is essentially a one-to-one correlation between the combustion of a fossil fuel and the CO2 it emits, the percentage CO2 emissions per fuel can be expected to rise by about the same percentage as the demand increase.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions by Sector

CO2 emissions per sector are shown in Table 3. In all sectors (including electrical generation), with the exception of residential, there is a marked increase in CO2 emissions for the 1990 to 2000 period: commercial (7.9 per cent), transportation (12.9 per cent), electrical generation (22.4 per cent), and industrial (22.6 per cent).

Table 3: Gross and Net Carbon Dioxide Emissions: 1990 -- 2000 (kilotonnes)

Sector 1990 1992 1994 1995 1996 1998 2000
Residential 49561 48320 48135 47920 47828 47819 47806
Commercial 27431 27892 28173 28513 28978 29546 29604
Industrial 133039 128410 137434 143630 143427 156657 163105
Transportation 132008 126026 133637 136798 139368 144477 149044
Electric Power 92076 97132 87992 94910 100343 110248 112737
Upstream Oil/Gas 27123 30461 33209 34098 34908 40422 44964
Gross Emissions 510823 505496 518300 537265 552450 583771 602593
Biomass 49584 47255 49721 51395 52598 54603 55333
Net Emissions 461238 458241 468579 485870 499852 529168 547260

The decline in residential CO2 emissions is not the result of an increased energy efficiency in the home; instead, it is due to the replacement of oil by natural gas and electricity as fuels for space heating and domestic hot water. Although natural gas emits less CO2 than does oil, the residential emission levels are somewhat misleading, since all CO2 emission levels from electrical generation (including residential electricity demand) are listed with 'Electric Power'.

Total Carbon Dioxide Emissions

The CO2 emission levels shown in Table 3 are calculated from the energy requirements of all sectors of the economy; totals are listed in terms of 'Gross' (i.e, all emissions), and 'Net' (i.e., the Gross emissions less the amount of CO2 that biomass is expected to remove from the atmosphere). Table 3 lists the 'Gross', 'Biomass', and 'Net' taken from the NEB's 1991 and 1994 emissions data for the years 1990 through 2000. Since the 1994 NEB data does not include 1990 values, a correction factor of 1.5 per cent has been applied to the 1991 NEB data to obtain the emission levels for the 1990 year.

Other than a slight dip in the early 1990s due to an economic recession, there is a steady annual increase of 1.7 per cent in the year-over-year gross CO2 emissions. The overall growth in carbon dioxide emissions from 1990 to 2000 is some 17.9 per cent. The annual growth in net CO2 emissions is also 1.7 per cent, with an increase of 18.6 per cent from 1990 to 2000.

Emissions and Population

A second, perhaps more telling, method of measuring a country's carbon dioxide emissions is to consider emissions on a per-capita basis. World-wide carbon dioxide emissions in the early 1990s (from both the burning of fossil fuels and forest destruction) amount to some 8.5×109 tons [12]; given a world population of about 5.5×109 [13], this means that the annual average per capita emission is roughly 1.5 tons.

Despite its size (9.976×106 km2), Canada has a relatively small population (27.8×106}, in 1990), with a population density of only 2.8 per km2. The majority of the population is located within two hundred miles of the United States' border.

Statistics Canada (the statistics department of the Canadian government) projects the Canadian population to grow from $27.8×106 in 1990 (actual) [14], to an estimated $31.5×106 by the turn of the century [15]. Table 4 lists the Canadian population for the years 1990 through 2000 and the calculated per capita carbon dioxide emissions. The table shows that despite a slight decrease in the early 1990s (due, almost entirely, to the aforementioned economic recession), per capita emissions are expected to increase by some 4.8 per cent, from 16.6 to 17.4 tonnes per capita.

Table 4: Carbon Dioxide Emissions per capita: 1990 -- 2000

1990 1992 1994 1995 1996 1998 2000
Population (millions) 27.8 28.4 29.2 29.6 30.0 30.8 31.5
CO2 per capita (tonnes) 16.6 16.1 16.0 16.4 16.7 17.2 17.4

Emissions and GDP

A third method of measuring emissions is to consider the energy intensity (i.e., the amount of energy consumed to make a unit of gross domestic product). This is a rather useful approach since it can indicate whether a country is using its energy more (or less) efficiently in terms of the goods that it produces. Over time, as processes become more efficient and a country enters the 'new' economy, energy intensity is expected to decline.

Table 5 lists the energy intensity for the Canadian commercial and industrial sectors. Industrial CO2 emissions include the petrochemical industry but exclude electrical power generation and biomass burning. The GDP data for 1990 through 1994 is actual data [16]; 1995 and 1996 assume a growth rate of 4 and 2.4 per cent, respectively [17]; 1997 through 2000 assume a constant growth rate of 2 per cent per annum.

Table 5: Energy Intensity (Commercial and Industrial): 1990 -- 2000

1990 1992 1994 1995 1996 1998 2000
GDP ($×9) 412.9 405.3 440.6 458.2 469.2 488.2 507.9
Commercial (kt) 27074 27892 28173 28798 28513 29546 29604
Industrial (kt) 133039 128410 137434 143630 143427 156657 163105
Intensity ($/kt) 2.6 2.6 2.7 2.7 2.7 2.6 2.6

Over the period 1990 through 2000 there is little change in energy intensity; the rate of GDP growth closely matches the emissions growth of the commercial and industrial sectors. Should the GDP growth be higher than those projected and the CO2 emissions remain constant or decline, the energy intensity would improve.

Canadian Methane Emissions: 1992 - 2000

Methane (CH4), another greenhouse gas, is of particular interest for a number of reasons: first, the annual rate of emission increase is about 0.8 per cent [18]; second, it is 20 to 30 times more effective at trapping heat than is CO2 [19]; and third, should the planet be experiencing a temperature increase, an uncontrollable rise in methane emissions may occur as northern tundra and permafrost begin to melt [20]. Sources of methane include enteric fermentation in livestock and insects, rice fields and wetlands, incomplete biomass burning, land fills, and gas and coal fields [21].

Canadian methane emissions were first included in the 1994 NEB data, starting with a base year of 1992. The NEB data refers to four different energy-related sources only: oil and gas production; natural gas pipelines; coal beds in western Canada; and coal beds in eastern Canada. Table 6 shows the total expected methane emissions for Canada between the years 1992 and 2000; methane from other sources would increase this total. The annual rate of increase in methane emissions for this period is estimated to be about 3.4 per cent (31 per cent over the entire period), well above the world annual rate of 0.8 per cent.

Table 6: Methane Emissions per capita: 1992 -- 2000

Source 1992 1994 1995 1996 1998 2000
Total Emissions (kt) 1473 1586 1671 1723 1825 1844
CH4 per capita (kg) 51.9 55.4 56.4 57.9 61.1 61.2

On a per capita basis, emissions are quite small (when compared to CO2 emissions), in the range of 50 to 60 kilograms a year. However, over the 1992 to 2000 period, the per capita CH4 emissions are expected to increase by 17.9 per cent.

Total Emissions

Total greenhouse gas emissions can be expressed in terms of CO2-equivalents; that is, the heat-trapping potential of gases other than CO2 are calculated in relation to CO2. For example, every molecule of CH4 is equivalent to 20 to 30 molecules of CO2.

When expressed in terms of CO2-equivalents, the annual Canadian per capita greenhouse gas emissions from CO2 and CH4 (taken at a ratio of 20-to-1) increase by 7.6 per cent from 17.2 tonnes (1992) to 18.5 tonnes (2000) (see Table 7). Furthermore, the CO2-equivalent emissions per capita in the year 2000 are 6.3 per cent higher when compared with CO2 emissions alone (from Table 4).

Table 7: Total Greenhouse Emissions per capita: 1992 -- 2000

Source 1992 1994 1995 1996 1998 2000
CO2 Emissions (kt) 458241 468579 485870 499852 529168 547260
CH4 Emissions (kt) 1473 1586 1671 1723 1825 1844
CO2-Equivalent (kt) 487701 500299 519290 534312 565668 584140
Per capita (tonnes) 17.2 17.1 17.5 17.8 18.4 18.5

Emission Stabilization

One method of categorizing the emission of greenhouse gases in fossil-fuel based economies is to use CO2 emissions per capita and the energy demand per capita. Assuming that emissions are either low or high, and the demand is either low or high (a low demand is taken to mean that the fuel is being used more efficiently), then there are four possible categories:

In 1995, Canadian CO2 emissions are calculated to be 16.4 tonnes per capita (ranking within the world's top three), with a per capita energy demand of some 341 GJ (placing it amongst the highest in the world). Using the above categorization scheme, Canada fits into the final category, in which both emissions and demand are high. To achieve the ideal of both low emissions and low demand, it will be necessary to make a number of changes to Canadian energy consumption patterns. Given that Canada has pledged to stabilize its emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000, it is instructive to consider the likelihood of meeting this target. The limiting factors are the time remaining in the decade and the apparent lack of political will to institute the necessary changes.

All that can be realistically achieved in this timeframe is a number of short, and possibly some medium-term, objectives. Major modifications to existing physical infrastructure (such as thermal power stations or many industrial processes) are unrealistic given the available time. (A 20 year strategy for reducing Canadian emissions is described in [22]; the complete paper can be found in [23].)

Residential and Commercial Sectors

Canada is unique among the circumpolar countries in that there are no district heating or cogeneration schemes worth speaking of; space heating is achieved through electric resistance heaters or by burning fossil fuels (notably oil or natural gas) in furnaces found in homes, apartment buildings, or office blocks.

In the short-term (i.e., immediately), the only realistic way in which emissions could be reduced in the residential and commercial sectors is to encourage individuals to follow more energy efficient energy practices. For example, energy demand can be lowered by reducing the requirements for lighting, and space heating and cooling (i.e., air conditioning).

Further emissions reduction in these sectors will require government action in the form of legislation. For example, a home heating fuel tax could be introduced that would come into effect when consumption went above a certain level (in an effort to protect people on fixed incomes). The revenues obtained from this tax could be used as rebates to encourage the purchase of energy efficient appliances (for example, fluorescent rather than incandescent light bulbs [24]) or additional insulation for homes.

Assuming that by 2000 the impact of these short term objectives upon CO2 emissions were 10 per cent of residential, commercial, and electric power emissions, then the net emissions would fall by some 3.4 per cent to roughly the 1998 levels. The per capita levels would fall to 16.7 tonnes, about where they were in 1996.

During the period leading up to 2000, a number of medium-term measures could be initiated. For example, legislation could be enacted requiring all new buildings (i.e., residential and commercial space) to be designed and built to maximize solar gain (either passive or active). Furthermore, new residential areas would have to be constructed with local cogeneration systems. The percentage of the housing stock that would be affected by this legislation would be minimal by the year 2000; however, its impact would become more apparent into the next decade.


Canadians love their cars -- 90 per cent of all trips are by automobile (a higher per capita percentage than in the United States) [25]. To make matters worse, little consideration is given to alternative modes of transport, such as bus or rail; in fact, a recent federal government funded passenger transport report claims that the automobile makes less impact upon the environment than does the train [25]. Over the past five years, the national passenger rail system has been gutted as part of the government's drive towards subsidy reduction. Since transportation depends almost entirely upon oil, and transportation in Canada relies heavily on road transport, improvements in the transportation sector could make the biggest impact on CO2 emissions in the short-term.

Energy demand in the transportation sector could be lowered by limiting the volume of motorized transportation (particularly the private automobile) permitted in cities; this can be achieved by restricting the availability or increasing the cost of parking [26]. Since most major cities in Canada have some form of public transportation, it is reasonable to expect that people would not suffer greatly by the proposed restrictions.

Further reductions could be made by shifting goods now moved by truck to rail, thereby reversing the long, slow decline in rail transportation. The two national rail companies would be required to relearn the meaning of service, though, before such a policy could be widely accepted.

A fuel consumption tax could also be applied to those transportation modes deemed to be CO2-intensive. The monies obtained from these taxes could be applied to developing efficient public and rapid transportation systems, thereby further reducing the demand for private road transportation [24].

Total Savings

The proposed changes are probably the most realistic that can be realized by the year 2000 given the time remaining in the decade and the minimal legislative action required on the part of the government. Assuming that these changes took place by 2000 and a 2.5 per cent decrease in gross emissions (equivalent to a 10 per cent drop in transportation emissions) were realized in all sectors (including industrial and electrical generation), then overall net emissions (i.e., removing the biomass factor) would drop to about 1998 levels. Per capita emissions (including CH4) would decline to some 18.1 tonnes.

In any set of calculations using projected data there is always the possibility that the projections are too high. For example, assuming that the growth in gross emissions by the year 2000 for both CO2 and CH4 are only two-thirds as great as those projected by the National Energy Board, then the net emissions would be about the 1997 level. A 2.5 per cent decline in gross CO2 emissions would put net emissions at 1996 levels; the per capita emissions would fall to about 17.0 tonnes. On the other hand, the 2.5 per cent decline may be overly optimistic: a 1 per cent decline in gross emissions would lower net emissions to about the 1997 level, with per capita emissions slightly over 17.3 tonnes.

In each of the above situations, minor declines in emissions are achieved, but not enough to claim that emissions have stabilized; and given the past rates of growth in energy demand, one could assume that these declines would be short-lived. Two other uncontrollable (and potentially politically damaging) emission reduction scenarios are an economic downturn (as in the early 1990s) or a dramatic increase in oil prices (as in the late 1970s). Neither of these are desirable since they are typically short-term and cannot be taken as solutions, since emissions invariably grow once the problem is passed.

Concluding Remarks

The overriding problem in meeting the emissions stabilization target is the time remaining in the decade (about five years). Stabilization was first proposed in 1990, the Rio accord was signed in June 1992, ratified in December 1992, and came into forced in March 1994 [27]. A number of public consultations were held prior to October 1994, as input for the Berlin conference in April 1995. There has been much talk and very little action; in short, the five years since stabilization was first proposed have been wasted (seven years, if the time from the 1988 Toronto atmospheric conference is included).

It is safe to say that without some form of concerted government policy, there can be little hope of meeting any targets since emissions continue to grow. Sadly, many governments (both provincial and federal) have trumpeted minor environmental successes while hindering actions that could have major benefits (both environmental and economic) [28]. For example, Canada's much heralded conservation triumph in defending the Greenland turbot stocks comes at a time when the northern cod stocks are at one per cent of their 1990 levels. On the other hand, proposals to build local cogeneration plants are thwarted because electrical utilities refuse to grant wheeling rights to independent producers [29].

Despite the promises, claims, and treaty obligations made by the government of Canada with respect to greenhouse gas stabilization or reduction, Canadians are making little headway in dealing with their greenhouse gas emissions. The expected growth in emissions over the 1990 to 2000 period, although small in terms of the planet's overall carbon budget, when considered on a per-capita basis, ranks Canada within the world's top three.

If Canada were the only country on the planet, then its levels of greenhouse gas emissions would not be an issue. However, Canada is not alone, and more importantly, its level of per capita GDP and lifestyle is a goal to which many other countries aspire. Newly industrializing countries can hardly be expected to curtail economic plans in order to allow countries such as Canada to continue its energy spendthrift ways. It is time for Canada's actions to match its rhetoric.


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