Climate change in Canada

Map of Canada showing the increases in GHG emissions by province/territory in 2008, compared to the 1990 base year.
  50%+ increase
  30%-50% increase
  20%-30% increase
  10%-20% increase
  0%-10% increase
  0%-10% decrease
  Each square represents 2 tonnes CO2 eq. per capita

In Canada mitigation of anthropogenic climate change is being addressed more seriously by the provinces than by the federal government. The 2015 election signals greater federal leadership as noted in Canada's National Statement at COP21,[1] making climate change a top priority, and pledging actions based on the best scientific evidence and advice.

Observed Impacts

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), formerly Environment Canada, is a federal department with the stated role of protecting the environment, conserving national natural heritage, and also providing weather and meteorological information.[2] According to ECCC[3] "warming over the 20th century is indisputable and largely due to human activities" adding "Canada's rate of warming is about twice the global rate: a 2°C increase globally means a 3 to 4ºC increase for Canada".[4] Berkeley Earth has reported that 2015 was "unambiguously" the warmest year on record across the world, with the Earth’s temperature more than 1.0 C (1.8 F) above the 1850-1900 average.[5]

ECCC lists impacts of climate change consistent with global changes. Temperature-related changes include longer growing season, more heat waves and fewer cold spells, thawing permafrost, earlier river ice break-up, earlier spring runoff, and earlier budding of trees. Meteorological changes include an increase in precipitation and more snowfall in northwest Arctic.[3] Highlighting that "Warming is not uniform ...(the) Arctic is warming even faster", ECCC notes 2012 had the lowest extent of Arctic sea ice on record up to 2014.

ECCC's Climate Research Division summarized annual precipitation changes to support biodiversity assessments by the Canadian Councils of Resource Ministers. Evaluating records up to 2007 they observed: "Precipitation has generally increased over Canada since 1950 with the majority of stations with significant trends showing increases. The increasing trend is most coherent over northern Canada where many stations show significant increases. There is not much evidence of clear regional patterns in stations showing significant changes in seasonal precipitation except for significant decreases which tend to be concentrated in the winter season over southwestern and southeastern Canada. Also, increasing precipitation over the Arctic appears to be occurring in all seasons except summer."[6]

ECCC climate specialists have assessed trends in short-duration rainfall patterns using Engineering Climate Datasets: "Short-duration (5 minutes to 24 hours) rainfall extremes are important for a number of purposes, including engineering infrastructure design, because they represent the different meteorological scales of extreme rainfall events." A "general lack of a detectable trend signal", meaning no overall change in extreme,short-duration rainfall patterns was observed in the single station analysis. In relation to design criteria used for traditional water management and urban drainage design practice (e.g., Intensity-Duration-Frequency (IDF) statistics), the evaluation "shows that fewer than 5.6% and 3.4% of the stations have significant increasing and decreasing trends, respectively, in extreme annual maximum single location observation amounts." On a regional basis, southwest and the east (Newfoundland) coastal regions generally showed significant increasing regional trends for 1- and 2-hour extreme rainfall durations. Decreasing regional trends for 5 to 15 minute rainfall amounts were observed in the St. Lawrence region of southern Quebec and in the Atlantic provinces.[7]


In 2000 Canada ranked ninth out of 186 countries in terms of per capita greenhouse gas emissions without taking into account land use changes. In 2005 it ranked eighth.[8] In 2009, Canada was ranked seventh in total greenhouse gas emissions behind Germany and Japan.[9]

Canada is a large country with a low population density, so transportation – often in cold weather when fuel efficiency drops – is a big part of the economy. About 25 per cent of Canada's greenhouse gases (GHG)s come from trucks, trains, airplanes and, especially, cars. Commerce, residential fuel consumption and industry (excluding oil and gas) account for 24 per cent of the total, but much of those emissions come from equipment (mining trucks, front-end loaders) that do not get recorded in the transportation ledger. Another 14 per cent come from non-energy sources. The rest come from the production and manufacture of energy and power. The following table summarizes forecast changes to annual emissions by sector in megatonnes.

Sector 2004 total 2004-2010 increase 2010-2020 increase2020 total
Upstream oil and gas127 7 -10 124
Upgrading and refining heavier oil29 34 2587
Power generation1301-4126
Commercial and residential8311397
Non-energy (mostly agriculture)108811127

As Canada creates targets for GHG reductions, policymakers will likely zero in on the three areas – transportation, electricity generation and fossil fuel production – in which the greatest reductions are possible. Together, these activities account for nearly two-thirds of Canada's greenhouse gases. Efficiencies can be found there.

According to Canada's Energy Outlook, the Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) report,[10] NRCan estimates that Canada's GHG emissions will increase by 139 million tonnes between 2004 and 2020, with more than a third of the total coming from petroleum production and refining. Upstream emissions will decline slightly, primarily from gas field depletion and from increasing production of coalbed methane, which requires less processing than conventional natural gas. Meanwhile, emissions from unconventional resources and refining will soar.[11] However, the estimates for carbon emissions differ amongst Environment Canada, World Resources Institute and the International Energy Agency by nearly 50%. The reasons for the differences have not been determined.

Public policy

Kyoto Protocol

Canada is a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol. However, the Liberal government that later signed the accord took little action towards meeting Canada's greenhouse gas emission targets. Although Canada committed itself to a 6% reduction below the 1990 levels for the 2008-2012 as a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, the country did not implement a plan to reduce greenhouse gases emissions. Soon after the 2006 federal election, the new minority government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Canada could and would not meet Canada's commitments. The House of Commons passed several opposition-sponsored bills calling for government plans for the implementation of emission reduction measures.

Canadian and North American environmental groups feel that Canada lacks credibility on environmental policy and regularly criticizes Canada in international venues. In the last few months of 2009, Canada's attitude was criticized at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) conference,[12] at the Commonwealth summit,[13] and the Copenhagen conference.[14]

In 2011, Canada, Japan and Russia stated that they would not take on further Kyoto targets.[15] The Canadian government invoked Canada's legal right to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol on 12 December 2011.[16] Canada was committed to cutting its greenhouse emissions to 6% below 1990 levels by 2012, but in 2009 emissions were 17% higher than in 1990. Environment minister Peter Kent cited Canada's liability to "enormous financial penalties" under the treaty unless it withdrew.[15][17] He also suggested that the recently signed Durban agreement may provide an alternative way forward.[18] Canada's decision was strongly criticized by representatives of other ratifying countries, including France and China.

Harper administration

Under the tenure of Stephen Harper, who was Prime Minister from 2006 to 2015, the Kyoto Accord was abandoned and the Clean Air Act was unveiled on October 19, 2006.[19]

By 2014 award-winning American/Canadian limnologist, David Schindler, argued that Harper's administration had put "economic development ahead of all other policy objectives", in particular the environment.[20]

"It’s like they don’t want to hear about science anymore. They want politics to reflect economics 100 per cent - economics being only what you can sell, not what you can save."
David Schindler 2014

In 2010 Graham Saul, who represented the Climate Action Network Canada (CAN) — a coalition of 60 non-governmental organisations — commented on the 40-page CAN report "Troubling Evidence"[21] which claimed that,[22]

"Canada's climate researchers are being muzzled, their funding slashed, research stations closed, findings ignored and advice on the critical issue of the century unsought by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government."
Leahy The Guardian 2010



The Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF), one of the largest conservation organisations in the country, takes an active stance in lobbying on mitigation of global warming. According to CWF the organisation recognised the need for action in 1977.[23] It had published Checkerspot, a now discontinued biannual climate change magazine.

Fossil fuel divestment

Fossil fuel divestment is a social movement which urges everyone from individual investors to large institutions to remove their investments (to divest) from publicly listed oil, gas and coal companies, with the intention of combating climate change by reducing the amount of Green-house gases released into the atmosphere, and holding the oil, gas and coal companies responsible for their role in climate change.

Founder of the movement Bill McKibben, a researcher and academic from university of Victoria, and creator of the webpage stated: "If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from the wreckage. We believe […] organizations that serve the public good should divest from fossil fuels"

Movement intentions

Limits of divestment

Although the impact of divestment is likely to have limited quantitative success in reducing carbon emissions, the movement can gain momentum as a symbolic gesture that has the potential to shift social expectations of investment practices within businesses. Divestment has the potential to be effective if the divested funds are re-invested into the infrastructure of a low-carbon economy The impact of divestment is believed to be minimal as the continual purchase of oil and gas (and oil and gas derived products such as plastics) will still sustain the oil and gas companies.

Climate change by province

While the federal government was slow to develop a monitoring and credible reduction regime, several provincial governments have established substantial programs to reduce emissions on their respective territories. British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec have joined the Western Climate Initiative,[24] a group of 7 states of the Western United States whose aim is to establish a common framework to establish a carbon credit market. These provinces have also made commitments regarding the reduction and announced concrete steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Alberta has an established "Climate Change Action Plan",[25] released in 2008. The Specified Gas Emitters Regulation in Alberta made it the first jurisdiction in North America to have a price on carbon.[25] Reduction programs in other provinces are much less developed.

Canada's two largest provinces, Ontario and Quebec, are wary of federal policies shifting the burden of greenhouse reductions on them in order to give Alberta and Saskatchewan more room to further develop their tar sands reserves, therefore chilling relations between the 13 provinces and territories.[26]


The Specified Gas Emitters Regulation has placed a price on carbon dioxide emissions in Alberta since 2007[27] and was renewed to 2017 with increased stringency. It requires "large final emitters", defined as facilities emitting more than 100,000tCO2e per year, to comply with an emission intensity reduction which increases over time and caps at 12% in 2015, 15% in 2016 and 20% in 2017. Facilities have several options for compliance. They may actually make reductions, pay into the Climate Change and Emission Management Fund (CCEMF), purchase credits from other large final emitters or purchase credits from non large final emitters in the form of offset credits.[28] Criticisms against the intensity based approach to pricing carbon include the fact that there is no hard cap on emissions and actual emissions may always continue to rise despite the fact that carbon has a price. Benefits of an intensity based system include the fact that during economic recessions, the carbon intensity reduction will remain equally as stringent and challenging, while hard caps tend to become easily met, irrelevant and do not work to reduce emissions. Alberta has also been criticized that its goals are too weak, and that the measures enacted are not likely to achieve the goals. In 2015, the newly elected government committed to revising the climate change strategy.[29][30]

In Alberta there has been a trend of high summer temperatures and low summer precipitation. This has led much of Alberta to face drought conditions.[31] Drought conditions are negatively impacting on the agriculture sector of this province, mainly the cattle ranching area.[32] When there is a drought there is a shortage of feed for cattle (hay, grain). With the shortage on crops ranchers are forced to purchase the feed at the increased prices while they can. For those who cannot afford to pay top money for feed are forced to sell their herds.[33][34]

During the drought of 2002, Ontario had a good season and produced enough crops to send a vast amount of hay to those hit the hardest in Alberta. However this is not something that can or will be expected every time there is a drought in the prairie provinces.[35] This causes a great deficit in income for many as they are buying heads of cattle for high prices and selling them for very low prices.[36] By looking at historical forecasts, there is a strong indication that there is no true way to estimate or to know the amount of rain to expect for the upcoming growing season. This does not allow for the agricultural sector to plan accordingly.[37] As of 2008, Alberta's electricity sector was the most carbon-intensive of all Canadian provinces and territories, with total emissions of 55.9 million tonnes of CO
in 2008, accounting for 47% of all Canadian emissions in the electricity and heat generation sector.[38]

In November 2015, Premier Rachel Notley unveiled plans to increase the province's carbon tax to $20 per tonne in 2017, increasing further to $30 per tonne by 2018.[39] This policy shift came about partly because of the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, which the premier likened to a "kick in the teeth".[40] The province's new climate policies also include phasing out coal-fired power plants by 2030, and cutting emissions of methane by 45% by 2025.[41]

Alberta witnessed the effects of climate change in a dramatic manner when a "perfect storm" of El Niño and global warming contributed to the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, which led to the evacuation of the oil-producing town at the heart of the tar sands industry.[42] The area has witnessed an increased frequency of wildfires, as Canada's wildfire season now starts a month earlier that it used to and the annual area burned is twice what it was in 1970.[43]

British Columbia

The extreme weather events of greatest concern in British Columbia include heavy rain and snow falls, heat waves, and drought. They are linked to flooding and landslides, water shortages, forest fires, reduced air quality, as well as costs related to damage to property and infrastructure, business disruptions, and increased illness and mortality. In recent years, significant extreme events and climate impacts in BC have included:

BC has implemented many ambitious policies to address climate change mitigation, particularly through its Climate Action Plan,[47] released in 2008. It has set legislated greenhouse gas reduction targets of 33% below 2007 levels by 2020 and 80% by 2050.[48] BC’s revenue neutral carbon tax is the first of its kind in North America. It was introduced at $10/tonne of CO2e in 2008 and has risen by $5/tonne annual increases until it reached $30/tonne in 2012, where the rate has remained. It is required in legislation that all revenues from the carbon tax are returned to British Columbians through tax cuts in other areas.[49]

BC’s public sector became the first in North America to be carbon neutral in 2010.[50] The Clean Energy Vehicles Program provides incentives for the purchase of approved clean energy vehicles and for charging infrastructure installation.[51] There has been action across sectors including financing options and incentives for building retrofits, a Forest Carbon Offset Protocol, a Renewable and Low Carbon Fuel Standard, and Landfill Gas Management Regulation.

BC’s GHG emissions have been going down, and in 2012 (based on 2010 data) BC declared it was within reach of meeting its interim target of a 6% reduction below 2007 levels by 2012. GHG emissions went down by 4.5% between 2007 and 2010, and consumption of all the main fossil fuels are down in BC as well while GDP and population have both been growing.[52]

In 2010, BC launched its Adaptation Strategy which focuses on building knowledge and tools to guide decision making affected by future climate, integrating adaptation into government business, and building adaptation approaches for key sectors such as agriculture and industry.[53]


Ontario is Canada’s most populated province [54] and, in 2010, had the second highest greenhouse gas emissions inventory in the country. In 1990, Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions were 176 megatonnes (Mt) of CO2 equivalent. According to Canada’s 2012 National Inventory Report [55] Ontario’s emissions were 171 Mt in 2010, an amount that represented 25% of Canada’s total emissions for that year. Over the 20-year period between 1990 and 2010, Ontario’s emissions continued to increase until the mid-2000s. Emissions declined significantly in 2008-2009 due in large part to the economic recession. In 2010, Ontario emitted 12.95 tonnes per person,[56] compared with the Canadian average of 20.3 tonnes per person.[57]

In August 2007, the Ontario government released Go Green: Ontario’s Action Plan on Climate Change. The plan established three targets: a 6% reduction in emissions by 2014, 15% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. The government has committed to report annually on the actions it is taking to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change.[58] With the initiatives currently in place, the government projects it will achieve 90% of the reductions needed to meet its 2014 target, and only 60% of those needed to meet the 2020 target.[59]

The largest emissions reductions to date have come from the phase out of coal-fired power generation by Ontario Power Generation. In August 2007, the government issued a regulation that required the end of coal burning at Ontario’s four remaining coal-fired power plants by the end of 2014.[60] Since 2003, emissions from these plants have dropped from 36.5 Mt to 4.2 Mt.[61] In January 2013, the government announced that coal will be completely phased out one year early, by the end of 2013.[62]

Through the Green Energy and Green Economy Act, 2009[63] Ontario implemented a feed-in tariff to promote the development of renewable energy generation. Ontario is also a member of the Western Climate Initiative. In January 2013, a discussion paper was posted on the Environmental Registry seeking input on the development of a greenhouse gas emissions reduction program for industry.

Over the years, transportation emissions have continued to increase. Growing from 44.8 Mt in 1990 to 59.5 Mt in 2010, transportation is responsible for the largest amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the province. Efforts to reduce these emissions include investing in public transit and providing incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles.

The government also recognizes the need for climate change adaptation and, in April 2011, released Climate Ready: Ontario’s Adaptation Strategy and Action Plan 2011-2014.[64]

As required by the Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario does an independent review and reports annually to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario on the progress of activities in the province to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.


Greenhouse gas emissions increased by 3.8% in Quebec between 1990 and 2007, to 85.7 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent. At 11.1 tonnes per capita, Quebec's emissions are well below the Canadian average (22.1 tonnes) and accounted for 11.6% of Canada's total in 2007.[65]

The latest data confirm a strong trend towards declining emissions in the industrial and residential sectors, which decreased by 23.6% and 27.9% respectively and a sharp rise in transportation (+29.5%) and in the tertiary sector (+53.2%). Emissions in the electricity sector have also spiked in 2007, due to the operation of the TransCanada Energy combined cycle gas turbine in Becancour. The generating station, Quebec's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions that year, released 1,687,314 tonnes of CO2 equivalent in 2007[66] or 72.1% of all emissions from the sector and 2% of total emissions. The plant was closed in 2008[67] in 2009[68] and in 2010.[69]

Between 1990 — the reference year of the Kyoto Protocol — and 2006, Quebec's population grew by 9.2% and Quebec's GDP of 41.3%. The emission intensity relative to GDP declined from 28.1% during this period, dropping from 4,500 to 3,300 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per million dollars of gross domestic product (GDP).[70]

In May 2009, Quebec became the first juridsiction in the Americas to impose an emissions cap after the Quebec National Assembly passed a bill capping emissions from certain sectors. The move was coordinated with a similar policy in the neighboring province of Ontario and reflects the commitment of both provinces as members of the Western Climate Initiative.[71]

On November 23, 2009, the Quebec government pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% below the 1990 base year level by 2020, a goal similar to that adopted by the European Union. The government intends to achieve its target by promoting public transit, electric vehicles and intermodal freight transport. The plan also calls for the increased use of wood as a building material, energy recovery from biomass, and a land use planning reform.[72] According to simulations conducted with Quebec's Ministry of Finance econometric model, the reduction goal should impact the province's real GDP by 0.16% in 2020.[73]

Impacts on forestry

According to Environment Canada’s 2011 annual report, there is evidence that some regional areas within the western Canadian boreal forest have increased by 2 °C since 1948.[74] The rate of the changing climate is leading to drier conditions in the boreal forest, which leads to a whole host of subsequent issues.[75] This leads to a challenge for the forestry industry to sustainably manage and conserve trees within boreal forest. Climate change will have a direct impact on the productivity of the boreal forest, as well as health and regeneration.[75] As a result of the rapidly changing climate, trees are migrating to higher latitudes and altitudes (northward), but some species may not be migrating fast enough to follow their climatic habitat.[76][77][78] Moreover, trees within the southern limit of their range may begin to show declines in growth.[79] Drier conditions are also leading to a shift from conifers to aspen in more fire and drought-prone areas.[75]

Assisted migration of tree species within the boreal forest is one tool that has been proposed and is currently under study.[80] It involves deliberately moving tree species to locations that may better climatically suit them in the future.[80][81] For species that may not be able to disperse easily, have long generation times or have small populations, this form of adaptative management and human intervention may help them survive in this rapidly changing climate.[80] Assisted migration may offer a potential option to lessen the risks that climate change poses to towards maintaining a sustainable industry, in terms of productivity and health.[82]

There may be benefits and/or consequences to applying assisted migration on wide scale in Canada.[78][80][82] Assisted migration may prevent the extinction of certain tree species, enable and conserve market-based goods such as wood products, and conserve processes and services of an ecosystem.[80] Unfortunately, assisted migration could result in competition between the already established trees with the introduced trees, breeding of the introduced trees with established trees or the disruption of key ecological processes. Any decision made on assisted migration to be implemented in the forestry industry will need continued and rely on informed research and long-term studies.[78][82]


Greenhouse gases emissions from energy uses in Canada, 1990-2008[38]
in kt CO2 equivalent Change 1990-2008 (%) Share in 2008 (%)
1990 1995 2000 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
Electricity and Heat Generation 95,500 101,000 132,000 127,000 125,000 117,000 125,000 119,000 Negative increase 24.6% 16.2%
Fossil Fuel Industries 51,000 54,000 66,000 72,000 66,000 66,000 70,000 68,000 Negative increase 33.3% 9.3%
Mining & Oil and Gas Extraction 6,190 7,840 10,400 14,900 15,600 16,800 23,200 23,900 Negative increase 286.1% 3.3%
Industrial Combustion 55,000 53,300 53,400 51,500 47,600 47,000 49,400 43,400 21.1% 5.9%
Residential 43,000 45,000 45,000 43,000 42,000 40,000 44,000 43,000 Steady 0% 5.9%
Commercial & Institutional 25,700 28,900 33,100 37,700 36,700 33,400 34,900 34,900 Negative increase 35.8% 4.8%
Transport 145,000 159,000 178,000 188,000 192,000 191,000 199,000 198,000 Negative increase 36.6% 27.0%
Fugitives Sources 42,700 57,000 64,700 65,600 64,700 65,800 64,700 63,800 Negative increase 49.4% 8.7%
Energy Uses 469,000 510,000 587,000 603,000 593,000 581,000 614,000 597,000 Negative increase 27.3% 81.3%
Non-energy Sources 123,000 131,000 130,000 138,000 138,000 137,000 136,000 137,000 Negative increase 11.4% 18.7%
Total 592,000 641,000 717,000 741,000 731,000 718,000 750,000 734,000 Negative increase 24.0% 100.0%
Greenhouse gases emissions by Canadian province/territory, 1990-2008[38]
in kt CO2 equivalent Change 1990-2008 (%) Share in 2008 (%)
1990 1995 2000 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008
 Newfoundland and Labrador 9,450 8,250 8,720 10,100 10,100 9,530 10,700 10,100 Negative increase 6.9% 1.4%
 Prince Edward Island 1,980 1,880 2,200 2,290 2,230 2,110 2,070 1,970 0.5% 0.3%
 Nova Scotia 19,000 18,600 20,900 22,800 21,800 20,100 20,700 20,900 Negative increase 10.0% 2.9%
 New Brunswick 15,900 16,800 19,900 21,300 21,000 18,700 19,100 18,000 Negative increase 13.2% 2.5%
 Quebec 82,800 79,400 82,300 89,100 85,400 83,800 86,800 82,000 1.0% 11.2%
 Ontario 176,000 174,000 200,000 199,000 200,000 192,000 200,000 190,000 Negative increase 8.0% 26.0%
 Manitoba 18,600 19,800 21,200 21,400 21,000 21,100 21,700 21,900 Negative increase 17.7% 3.0%
 Saskatchewan 43,400 59,100 66,500 71,700 72,300 71,300 74,000 75,000 Negative increase 72.8% 10.3%
 Alberta 171,000 200,000 226,000 234,000 231,000 234,000 246,000 244,000 Negative increase 42.7% 33.4%
 British Columbia 49,300 57,500 61,600 64,600 62,100 61,100 64,500 65,100 Negative increase 32.0% 8.9%
Territories 2,031 2,438 2,054 2,090 1,946 1,784 2,267 2,161 Negative increase 6.4% 0.3%
Canada[note 1] 589,461 635,330 709,320 738,380 728,876 715,524 747,837 731,131 Negative increase 24.0% 100%

See also

Notes and references


  1. Some emissions are only reported at the national level.


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