Canada’s emissions saw largest drop under Stephen Harper

Between 1990 and 2019, Canada’s emissions dropped only 8 times—the largest was in 2009, 3 years into Harper’s administration.

Last week, Canada’s commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, Jerry DeMarco, released his review of 30 years of data regarding the federal government’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

The main finding is that despite multiple promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Canada’s emissions have increased by more than 20% since 1990.

Not only that, but since the Paris Agreement on climate change was adopted in 2015, shortly after Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party took power, Canada has been the worst performer of all the G7 nations.

Support independent journalism

I thought I’d show you what the emissions data looks like for Canada during that 30-year period.

In 1990, Canada produced 602 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents. By 2007, that number had ballooned to 752 megatonnes, the peak of the last 3 decades. That’s a 24.9% increase.

Over the following 2 years, emissions dropped 7.7% to 694 megatonnes, then they pretty much kept climbing after that.

Between 1991 and 2000, emissions grew at an average of 2.01%. You can see the steep incline in the first third or so of the graph.

That growth rate slowed significantly between 2001 and 2007, averaging 0.36% a year.

However, after the drop in emissions in 2008 and 2009, they started rising again, but at an average of 0.51% per year for the next decade.

Since 1990, there have been only 7 years when emissions have fallen or remained unchanged:


Every other year saw increases, ranging from 0.13% in 2004 to 3.51% in 1996. The largest increase since 2009 was 1.68% in 2018.

Regarding my headline, here’s a look under emissions growth under each prime minister:

Of the 5 prime ministers who were in charge during these 3 decades, Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper saw the lowest average annual growth rate in emissions. In fact, it was so low, that he was the only one who saw a drop in the growth of emissions during his administration.

Keep in mind that the two years under Harper that saw the largest drop—2008 and 2009—were at the height of the Great Recession, which may have influenced the production of oil production, one of the largest contributors to emissions production. That being said, between January 2008 and January 2010, oil production decreased only 2.81%. And oil production increased between January 2008 and January 2009 by 1.5%, so that wouldn’t explain the drop in emissions in 2008.

Regardless, if we assume the Great Recession was responsible for the drop and ignore 2008 and 2009 when calculating average emissions under Harper, he’d end up with an annual average increase of 0.74%, the third highest.

Our current prime minister, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau had the second lowest growth rate, an average of 0.2% per year. Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien saw the highest growth rate, at 1.72%

Since 1990, Canada has committed to various reduction targets.

For example, as part of the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997, Canada under Chrétien committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 6% below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012.

As I pointed out earlier, emissions were at 602 megatonnes in 1990. A 6% reduction would’ve been 36.12 megatonnes, setting the target at 565.88 megatonnes.

It never got even close to it. The lowest it ever got between 2008 and 2012 was 694 in 2009, which was 15.3% higher than 1990 levels.

Speaking of 2009, that same year, Canada under Harper committed to getting to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020 as part of the Copenhagen Accord.

In 2005, emissions were at 739 megatonnes. I should point out that this is 22.8% increase over 1990 levels. So, we basically increased our baseline from what we committed to at Kyoto.

Regardless, a 17% reduction of 2005 levels would’ve been 125.63 megatonnes, bringing total emissions down to 613.4 megatonnes, which is still not only higher than Kyoto target but higher than the 1990 emissions levels as well.

Needless to say, we never reached 613.4 megatonnes at any point during the decade following Copenhagen. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, emissions kept climbing since 2009.

DeMarco’s report doesn’t include 2020 data, but 2019 was the highest level of emissions in Canada since the adoption of the Copenhagen Accord.

Emissions in 2019 were are 730 megatonnes, 5.2% above 2009’s levels and 19% above the Copenhagen targets. On the plus side, we were technically lower than the 2005 emissions in 2019, just not 17% lower. Instead, we were 1.2% lower.

And that might seem like potentially good news—hey we’re not as low as we wanted to be, but we are lower, right?—but 2019 was the third year in a row where emissions increased.

In 2015, Canada under Trudeau committed to reducing emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030, as party of the Paris Agreement.

That’s 221.7 megatonnes.

Canada saw a 2.21% drop in emissions during the first year following Paris, but the next 3 years all saw increases. But, hey, we still have 8 years. That’s enough time, right? We can cut emissions by nearly 30 megatonnes a year by then, right?

We’ve cut that much (42 megatonnes) in one year just once: in 2009. The next largest cut was only 16 megatonnes, which is roughly half the amount needed to hit the Paris targets.

Oh, wait. Did I mention that this year, Canada committed to a new emissions target? They promised to reduce emissions to 40–45% of 2005 levels by 2030. That’s 406–443 megatonnes in total, or 50.8–55.4 per year.

But it’s different now, right?

DeMarco claimed that the increases in emissions since 2009 “have been driven by growth in oil and gas extraction, in the number of light-duty gasoline trucks and heavy-duty diesel vehicles in operation, in the production and consumption of halocarbons, SF6 and NF3, and in the application of inorganic nitrogen fertilizers.”

Those 4 areas combined account for an increase of 61 megatonnes in emissions. Luckily, emissions from electricity generation decreased during the same period, offsetting emissions by 32 megatones.

That still leaves an increase of 29 megatonnes. And considering that emissions have increased by 36 megatonnes since 2009, that’s a good chunk tied up in those 4 areas.

Remember, the Paris commitment isn’t to freeze emissions where they are right now. They’re to almost cut them in half from where they were 15 years ago.

And unless Trudeau and his Liberals plan to decrease emissions produced during oil and gas extraction, during the operation of light-duty gasoline trucks and heavy-duty diesel trucks, during the production and consumption of halocarbons, and during the application of fertilizer, how on earth do they plan to meet those target?

Especially since we’ve never met a target we’ve committed to yet.

Support independent journalism

By Kim Siever

Kim Siever is an independent queer journalist based in Lethbridge, Alberta. He writes daily news articles, focusing on politics and labour.

2 replies on “Canada’s emissions saw largest drop under Stephen Harper”

I am concerned that the emissions drop in 2008 and 2009 in Canada are somehow attributed to policy of the Harper government. What else was going on at that time?
Remember the huge morgage/bank failures in the United States? Most world economies and therefore GHG emmitions were effected by that, hence the reduction here.

Comment on this story

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.