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Pandemic Year Cuts Canada’s Emissions 9%, Oil Sands Show Only Modest Drop

Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions fell by 66 million tonnes during the first year of the pandemic. But not all of those gains likely survived the economic recovery in 2021, and only a small share of the emission cuts came from the Alberta tar sands/oil sands, according to the government’s latest National Inventory Report released late last week.

Environment and Climate Change Canada submitted the annual data update to the UN climate secretariat last Thursday.

While the country’s emissions dropped nearly 9% in 2020, from 738 to 672 megatonnes, “we must be mindful that overall emissions are likely to rebound to a degree as Canada’s economy roars back to life,” Environment and Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault said in a release. That’s because emissions cuts equivalent to taking 20 million cars off the road were driven in large part by provincially-mandated lockdowns that curtailed public activity, leading to a 27-Mt reduction from transportation.

But Guilbeault pointed to some “real signs of progress within the data,” including a seven-megatonne emissions saving in electricity production due to the federal coal phaseout and a reduction of almost 25%, from 65 to 49 Mt, in “fugitive” methane and carbon dioxide emissions escaping from oil and gas facilities. CBC reports that 2020 was the first year Canada’s methane regulations took effect, and Dave Risk, head of the FluxLab research team at St. Francis Xavier University, said the data show the rules are working.

“There have been many oil and gas producers that have been diligent in achieving regulatory compliance and fixing leaks and doing that sort of thing. Others may be less diligent,” Risk told CBC. “In general, it’s the first full year of regulations just completed and things are definitely going in the right direction.”

But the detailed data on fossil emissions show major differences in performance across a sector that saw its carbon pollution fall 11.8% during the pandemic after rising 18.7% between 2005, the baseline year for Ottawa’s Emissions Reduction Plan, and 2019.

• Taken as a whole, emissions from “upstream” oil and gas exploration and production recorded a 12.6% drop in 2020 after increasing 23.6% between 2005 and 2019.

• Natural gas production and processing emissions fell 16.7% between 2005 and 2019 before dropping another 20% during the pandemic.

• Conventional oil production rose from 35 to 40 Mt between 2005 and 2015, dropped back down to 35 Mt by 2019, then decreased another 28.6%, to 25 Mt, between 2019 and 2020.

• Tar sands/oil sands emissions more than quintupled from 1990 to 2019, from 15 to 83 million tonnes. Producers logged a 137% emissions hike between 2005 and 2019 and only a 2.4% decline during the pandemic year.

Across the industry, average monthly oil production increased 3.8% between 2019 and 2020, while “equivalent products production” held almost exactly steady, according to Statistics Canada data.

The National Inventory Report shows Canada’s emissions intensity—the carbon pollution the country produces per unit of economic activity—declining 39% between 1990 and 2020. “The country’s GDP grew 22% between 2005 and 2020, but carbon emissions declined by 9.3% over that period,” CBC writes.

Fossil fuel emissions declined from 203 to 179 megatonnes between 2019 and 2020. Transportation fell from 185 to 159 Mt, while heavy industry and waste showed only small improvements. Agriculture emissions increased from 67 to 69 Mt.