Air pollutant emissions from the electricity sector

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Electricity generation produces a large share of total national sulphur oxides (SOX) and nitrogen oxides (NOX). Sulphur oxides and NOX are mostly emitted from power plants burning fossil fuels such as coal and, to a lesser extent, natural gas and diesel. These air pollutants are responsible for the formation of fine particulate matter, ozone, smog and acid rain. They also adversely affect human health and the economy.

Key results

  • In 2015, electric utilities were the source of 24% and 8% of total Canadian emissions of SOX and NOX.
  • Most of the air pollutant emissions from electric utilities come from burning coal.
  • Electric utilities are also a source of carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ammonia (NH3) emissions. However, they account for less than 1% of the total national emissions of these pollutants.

Contribution of electric utilities to national air pollutant emissions by fuel source, Canada, 2015

Stacked column chart showing contribution of electric utilities to national air pollutant emissions by fuel source. Long description below.
Long description

The stacked column chart shows the contribution in percent of electric utilities to total national emissions of sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides in 2015 in Canada by fuel source: coal, natural gas, diesel and other.

Data for this chart
Contribution of electric utilities to national air pollutant emissions by fuel source, Canada, 2015
Fuel source Sulphur oxides (percentage of national emissions) Nitrogen oxides (percentage of national emissions) Carbon monoxide (percentage of national emissions) Fine particulate matter (percentage of national emissions) Volatile organic compounds (percentage of national emissions) Ammonia (percentage of national emissions)
Coal 22.9 6.1 0.3 0.2 <0.1 <0.1
Natural gas 0.2 0.9 0.2 <0.1 <0.1 <0.1
Diesel <0.1 0.5 <0.1 <0.1 0 <0.1
Other 0.7 0.6 0.1 <0.1 <0.1 <0.1
Emissions of air pollutants from electric utilities by fuel source, Canada, 2015
Fuel source Sulphur oxides (kilotonnes) Nitrogen oxides (kilotonnes) Carbon monoxide (kilotonnes) Fine particulate matter (kilotonnes) Volatile organic compounds (kilotonnes) Ammonia (kilotonnes)
Coal 242 115 16 3 < 1 < 1
Natural gas 2 16 14 < 1 1 < 1
Diesel < 1 9 1 < 1 < 1 < 1
Other 8 12 8 < 1 1 < 1

Download data file (Excel/CSV; 1.39 KB)

How this indicator was calculated

Note: Carbon monoxide, fine particulate matter, volatile organic compounds and ammonia are not shown in the chart due to their low share (≤ 1%) of total emissions in 2015. Excludes emissions from industries that generate electricity and heat as a supporting activity rather than as their primary purpose. "Other" fuel sources include waste material and other uncategorized sources of electricity generation.
Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada (2017) Air Pollutant Emission Inventory.

More information

In 2015, 96% of SOX and 76% of NOX emissions from electric utilities came from burning coal.

While generating electricity by burning fossil fuels causes air pollutant emissions, the use of non-fossil energy sources, such as hydro-electricity, nuclear power and other renewable sources to generate electricity does not emit air pollutants. A large share of the electricity generated in Canada comes from sources that do not emit air pollutants:

  • 59% of electricity comes from hydro
  • 16% comes from nuclear power plants
  • 5% comes from non-hydro renewable sources, such as wind, solar, tidal power and biomassFootnote [1]
Changes in emissions from electric utilities

Key results

  • Emissions of SOX and NOX from electric utilities declined by 59% and 40%, respectively, between 1990 and 2015.
  • Most of that decline occurred from 2005 onward.

Changes in emissions of key air pollutants from electric utilities, Canada, 1990 to 2015

Line chart showing the changes in emissions of key air pollutants from electric utilities. Long description below.
Long description

The indexed line chart shows emissions changes from 1990 to 2015, as a percent of 1990 emissions, for 2 air pollutants from electric utilities: nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides.

Data for this chart
Changes in emissions of key air pollutants from electric utilities, Canada, 1990 to 2015
Year Nitrogen oxides (emissions changes as a percentage of 1990 levels) Sulphur oxide (emissions changes as a percentage of 1990 levels)
1990 0 0
1991 -2 -4
1992 2 -1
1993 -6 -12
1994 -8 -9
1995 -4 -14
1996 5 -12
1997 12 -4
1998 19 -2
1999 18 -3
2000 21 0
2001 17 1
2002 18 0
2003 12 3
2004 1 -10
2005 -3 -15
2006 -11 -26
2007 -6 -20
2008 -11 -31
2009 -14 -38
2010 -8 -46
2011 -21 -53
2012 -34 -54
2013 -36 -55
2014 -34 -56
2015 -40 -59
Emissions of key air pollutants from electric utilities, Canada, 1990 to 2015
Year Nitrogen oxides (kilotonnes) Sulphur oxides (kilotonnes)
1990 253 618
1991 248 592
1992 258 611
1993 237 547
1994 233 560
1995 244 533
1996 265 542
1997 282 591
1998 302 604
1999 298 601
2000 308 619
2001 296 624
2002 300 616
2003 284 635
2004 256 559
2005 246 526
2006 225 459
2007 239 492
2008 225 428
2009 218 384
2010 234 334
2011 200 293
2012 166 284
2013 162 278
2014 167 269
2015 152 252

Download data file (Excel/CSV; 1.42 KB)

How this indicator was calculated

Note: Carbon monoxide, fine particulate matter, volatile organic compounds and ammonia are not shown in the chart due to their low share (≤ 1%) of total emissions in 2015. Excludes emissions from industries that generate electricity and heat as a supporting activity rather than as their primary purpose.
Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada (2017) Air Pollutant Emission Inventory.

More information

Between 2005 and 2015, emissions of NOX and SOX decreased by 38% and 52%, respectively. Over the same period, the share of electricity that came from burning fossil fuels fell from 25% to 19%. This decline was mostly the result of a gradual drop in electricity generation from coal power plants.Footnote [2]

The emissions reductions since 2005 are mainly due to:

  • the change in the mix of energy sources used to generate electricity
  • the introduction of regulations
  • domestic and international agreements
  • better removal technologies
  • plant closures

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