Clean Energy Canada | Trending Now: Canada’s Cleaner Electricity Sector
December 12, 2014

Each year, Environment Canada puts this country’s climate progress—or lack thereof—right out there for all to see.

This week saw the release of the 2014 edition of Emissions Trends. The assessments are an important exercise in transparency, and for anyone who wants to understand where carbon pollution is headed in our economic sectors, they’re required reading.

But just like last year, the top-line message from the 2014 edition isn’t pretty—or as Ontario’s Environment Commissioner sort-of-joked on Twitter, “read ‘em and weep.” In short, Canada is now on track to miss its 2020 climate goal by a huge margin, 116 million tonnes. For comparison, that’s more than the total current emissions of Atlantic Canada and British Columbia combined.

But here’s the good news: Clean power is a rare bright spot in that bleak landscape.

Carbon pollution from Canada’s electricity sector has dropped already, and is projected to keep on falling. From 2005 to 2020, Environment Canada forecasts a reduction of 41 percent in Canada’s electricity-sector emissions, for a total cut of 50 million tonnes of carbon pollution. Some specifics:

  • Of the 50 million tonnes in reductions, 46 million tonnes will come from reductions in coal-fired electricity generation—a huge accomplishment.
  • Emissions from power generated from petroleum are forecast to drop by eight million tonnes from 2005 to 2020
  • On the other side, Environment Canada expects emissions from natural gas-fired power plants will grow slightly from their 2005 level.

Who deserves credit for the sector’s impressive performance? To answer that, we need to combine those results with another Environment Canada assessment, a biennial report Canada submits to the United Nations.

That report concludes that Ontario’s electricity policies—including its coal phase-out—will cut Canada’s emissions by nearly 32 million tonnes in 2020. Meanwhile, Ottawa’s coal-power regulations (which are scheduled to take effect next year) will reduce carbon pollution by three million tonnes in 2020.

So while the lion’s share of the credit clearly belongs to Ontario, Emissions Trends also notes the contributions of B.C.’s net-zero standard for new power and the renewable power requirements in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

The overall conclusion? Clean-power leadership at the provincial level in Canada is outpacing Ottawa’s efforts.

In another example of that federal / provincial contrast in action, this year’s Emissions Trends could not add any new federal measures to its list of emission-reduction initiatives. Meanwhile, Ontario and Nova Scotia each added new policies.

Our recent report, Tracking the Energy Revolution—Canada, noted exactly the same divergence, and recommended that Ottawa step up its clean energy support in response.

Just for fun—hey, Emissions Trends only comes around once a year!—here are a few other highlights from this year’s edition:

  • Non-hydro renewables—wind, solar, tidal, and others—will grow from less than one percent of Canada’s total generation in 2005 to nearly eight percent of our national total by 2020.
  • Environment Canada also anticipates falling emissions from the electricity sector will correspond to a growing power sector: the report projects that overall generation capacity will increase by six percent from today’s (2012) level by 2020.
  • Some national context: The forecast 50 million tonne drop in electricity emissions from 2005 to 2020 is on track to be cancelled out by the oil sands sector’s growth, which is projected to be 69 million tonnes over the same period. (But it’s worth noting that lowest oil price the analysis considers is a West Texas Intermediate price of $72/barrel in 2020. Even at that price level, oil and gas sector emissions would grow more slowly than in the report’s main scenario, which relies on an oil price of $102/barrel. We’re a long ways from 2020, but today’s price for that barrel is closer to $60—well below the report’s lowest-price scenario.)
  • In several places, the report’s authors suggest that Canada’s emissions performance is best assessed against a “without measures” scenario, meaning one in which no one in Canada takes any action to cut emissions after 2005. For much of the world, though (especially this week in Lima), a more meaningful measure is going to be Canada’s progress against its target—and that’s a measure where we’re coming up very, very short.
  • And finally: as these reports always do, this year’s edition opens up by pointing out that Canada is responsible for less than two percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But as a separate chart shows just a few pages later, Canada remains one of the 10 biggest carbon polluters on the planet.