Greenhouse gas emissions: drivers and impacts
Most greenhouse gases (GHGs) can be emitted by both natural processes and human activities. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, human-driven releases of GHG emissions disrupt the natural processes occurring in the atmosphere and are very likely to be the dominant cause of the observed warming that has occurred since the mid-20th century. Globally, almost 80% of GHG emissions from human sources come from the burning of fossil fuels and industrial processes. Specific activities include: driving vehicles, electricity production, heating and cooling of buildings, operation of appliances and equipment, production and transportation of goods, and provision of services and transportation for communities. In 2019, about 26% of Canada's total GHG emissions came from the oil and gas sector, 25% from transportation, 12% from buildings and 11% from the heavy industry sector.
Global GHG emissions grew by 23% between 2005 and 2018,Footnote 1 with the bulk of the growth occurring in developing countries. During this period, Canada's share of total global GHG emissions remained at less than 2%.
GHGs have different global warming potentials and different lifespans in the atmosphere. Short-lived climate pollutants, such as methane (CH4) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), are GHGs known to be very potent with relatively short lifespans. As such, emission reductions of short-lived climate pollutants can reduce atmospheric levels of these GHGs at a much quicker pace than comparable reductions from longer-lived GHGs. Therefore, immediate action to reduce these particular GHGs can have significant benefits for curbing near-term climate warming.
Canada aims to reduce its GHG emissions to 30% below its 2005 emission levels by 2030. Canada is committed to implementing its strengthened climate plan, A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy, to ensure Canada not only meets, but also exceeds its 2030 emissions reduction goal. In addition, Canada has committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and tabled the Canadian Net‑Zero Emissions Accountability Act in November 2020 to establish a legally-binding process to achieve that goal. By doing so, it will help to limit global average temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius.
Key drivers of greenhouse gas emissions
A wide variety of factors have an influence on the level of GHG emissions in Canada. These include Canada's physical geography, demographic changes in its population and economic growth.
Canada has a highly variable climate. This contributes to relatively higher energy use for space heating and cooling in buildings, compared with other industrialized countries. While vast, Canada is also sparsely populated, which leads to longer travel times and higher demand for transportation than in smaller and/or more densely populated countries. In addition, Canada had the fastest population growth and its economy showed the second fastest growth among the G7 countries from 2005 to 2019.
Despite these challenges, over the past 2 decades, Canada has seen a decoupling between growth of the economy and GHG emissions. Over this period, technological improvements and regulations have been adopted and implemented in various economic sectors, particularly for electricity generation, to help reduce emissions.
Other important factors influencing GHG emissions include the adoption of more efficient practices and equipment by consumers and industry as their knowledge about their choices and the impacts of those choices on the environment is improving. Examples include how people commute to work, where businesses decide to locate their manufacturing facilities and the decisions made to increase the efficiency of industrial processes or to manufacture more energy-efficient products.
Key impacts of greenhouse gas emissions
The release of GHGs and their increasing concentration in the atmosphere are already having an impact on the environment, human health and the economy. These changes notably manifest in Canada's north, affecting many indigenous and remote communities. The impacts are expected to become more severe, unless united efforts to reduce emissions are undertaken.
- Overall, average annual temperatures are expected to increase
- Snow, sea ice and glacier coverage will decrease due to higher temperatures, resulting in rising sea levels and increased coastal flooding. Rising temperatures will also thaw permafrost in the Arctic
- Future coastal-erosion rates will likely increase in most areas due to milder winters and smaller ice coverage
- Overall precipitation levels are expected to increase across most of the country and during all seasons, except for parts of southern Canada where there are indications of an expected decrease in summer and fall precipitation
- The increase in precipitation is expected to be combined with more frequent heavy precipitation events, resulting in higher risks of flooding
- Heat waves are likely to increase in frequency and severity, resulting in higher risks of forest fires
- Many wildlife species will have difficulty adapting to a warmer climate and will likely be subject to greater stress from diseases and invasive species
Human health impacts
- Higher temperatures and more frequent and severe extreme weather events may increase the risk of deaths from dehydration and heat stroke, and of injuries from intense local weather changes
- There may be a greater risk of respiratory and cardiovascular problems and certain types of cancers, as temperatures rise and exacerbate air pollution
- The risk of water-, food-, vector- and rodent-borne diseases may increase
- People living in Canada's northern communities, and vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly, are expected to be the most affected by the changes
- Agriculture, forestry, tourism and recreation may be affected by changing weather patterns
- Human health impacts are expected to place additional economic stress on health and social support systems
- Damage to infrastructure (for example, roads and bridges) caused by extreme weather events, thawing permafrost and rising sea levels is expected to increase, impacting local populations and resource development
Ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Addressing climate change requires action from everyone across all nations. Governments, businesses and individuals need to take significant steps to reduce emissions by using resources more efficiently and adopting new and cleaner technologies.
In 2016, Canada released the first-ever national climate plan – the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change – jointly developed by the federal, provincial and territorial governments. The measures in the Pan-Canadian Framework are projected to make significant progress in helping Canada reach its 2030 goal of a 30% reduction below 2005 levels.
The plan includes a pan-Canadian approach to pricing carbon pollution, and measures to achieve reductions across all sectors of the economy. It also aims to drive innovation and growth; increase technology development and adoption to ensure Canadian businesses are competitive in the global low-carbon economy.
Implementing the Pan-Canadian Framework is a key milestone noted in the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy. The Strategy sets out the Government of Canada's sustainable development priorities, establishes goals and targets, and identifies actions to achieve them. The 2019–2022 Strategy, Canada's fourth, outlines the actions toward sustainability that the Government will take in collaboration with partners within Canada and internationally. As such, it supports the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its global sustainable development goals (SDGs).
In December 2020, the Government of Canada released its strengthened federal climate plan, A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy. The plan contains 64 strengthened and new federal policies, programs and investments to cut pollution and build a stronger, cleaner, more resilient and inclusive economy. Building on the measures included in the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, the proposed actions outlined in the strengthened climate plan will – once fully implemented – enable Canada to exceed its current 2030 target.
To learn about the expected impact of GHG emission regulations developed by the government of Canada, consult the Regulatory Impact Analysis StatementFootnote 2 (also known as a RIAS) which accompanies each regulation. The RIAS outlines the reasons behind the development of a particular regulation, its objectives and its expected costs and benefits. The RIAS also includes details about consultations that were conducted and about how the government intends to track the performance of the regulation.
Companies could integrate the need to reduce GHG emissions and carbon pricing considerations into their investment, planning, and operational decisions in order to improve their long-term resilience and competitiveness. Through their actions and investments, companies can also support the transition to a low-carbon economy. For example, nearly 40 Canadian companies contribute to the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, a voluntary initiative that supports and encourages successful implementation of carbon pricing around the world.
Individuals can reduce GHG emissions at home, at work and in everyday activities. We can make a difference by changing our behaviour and making lifestyle decisions that reduce emissions. For more information on how individual Canadians can help our environment, including by reducing GHG emissions, consult Things you can do to improve climate change and the environment on the Government of Canada's Climate change website.
Environment and Climate Change Canada (2016) Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change.
Environment and Climate Change Canada (2019) Canada’s National Reports to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (2017).
Environment and Climate Change Canada (2020) A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy.
Environment and Climate Change Canada (2020) Canada’s Fourth Biennial Report on Climate Change.
Environment and Climate Change Canada (2021) Canada's Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollutant Emissions Projections 2020.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2014) Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2019).
International Monetary Fund (2021).
Natural Resources Canada (2008) From Impacts to Adaptation: Canada in a Changing Climate 2007.
Natural Resources Canada (2015) Canada in a Changing Climate: Sector Perspectives on Impacts and Adaptation.
Natural Resources Canada (2016) Canada's Marine Coasts in a Changing Climate.
World Resources Institute (2021) Climate Watch Country Historical Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
- Canada's action on climate change
- Canada's Changing Climate Report
- Canada’s official greenhouse gas inventory
- Climate change
- Climate change and health
- Climate change impacts and adaptation
- Climate Trends and Variations Bulletin
- Greenhouse gas emission regulations
- United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
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