The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) will have to reduce its climate pollution by an ambitious 9% per year to meet its 2030 climate targets, after the latest annual inventory of the region’s emissions showed an 8% increase in 2022—alongside a stunning 56% rise from gas-fired electricity over two years.
The Carbon Emissions Inventory Report produced by The Atmospheric Fund shows CO2 output rising across all the region’s major population centres, and in every sector of the local economy, hitting a total of 54 million tonnes last year. But Bryan Purcell, TAF’s vice president, policy and programs, told the Toronto Star the GTHA is taking an even bigger percentage hit from the electricity sector, where emissions are up 26% over one year and 56% over two.
“That’s because the use of natural gas generation is increasing,” Purcell said. “That’s eroding some of the progress we’re making to electrify buildings and transportation.”
The numbers show that “we really need to stop sinking investments into fossil gas infrastructure and equipment,” he told The Energy Mix. “That’s going to make it very hard to make absolute progress in reducing emissions.” Instead, those dollars could be directed to cleaner, more affordable options that are available across the GTHA.
“The solutions are right in front of us,” but “we must not go backwards,” TAF CEO Julia Langer said in a release. “Planning new fossil fuel infrastructure like gas plants and gas hookups has to stop. If you’re in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”
While the local shift from fossil fuels to clean energy is gaining momentum, Purcell said the numbers point to the immediate need for the GTHA to pick up the pace.
“The challenge we’re having is that lots of Canadians are adopting new technologies like electric vehicles and heat pumps, but for every home retrofitted with a heat pump, we’re seeing two new homes heated with natural gas,” he explained. Similarly, several new internal combustion vehicles are rolling off the lot for every new EV sold. Meanwhile, the Ontario government is contracting for new gas-fired power plants, across the region and across the province.
Emissions Rising Across the Board
TAF reports that:
• Carbon emissions in 2022 rose by 10.6% in Halton Region, 7.5% in York, 6.8% in Peel, 5.5% in Durham, 5.4% in the City of Toronto, and 3.2% in Hamilton.
• The analysis has climate pollution increasing by 9.3% in buildings, 8.7% in transportation, 4.9% in industry, and 2% each in waste and agriculture.
The sectoral breakdown in the inventory report shows the GTHA’s buildings sector, at 24.7 million tonnes, recording its highest emissions since 2015 and accounting for 46% of the region’s climate pollution last year. The lion’s share—89%—traced back to natural gas space and water heating.
“The region is growing quickly,” Purcell said. “The population is growing quickly. That means we’re building many new homes and buildings, not as many as we need to be,” but at a pace that “underlines the importance of moving as fast as possible to net-zero ready in new construction” and phasing out gas as a heating source.
“Otherwise, it’s just not going to be possible to retrofit existing homes and buildings fast enough” to offset the footprint of new buildings burning gas, he warned. “We’re also setting up building owners for bigger costs down the line,” since it’s more expensive to retrofit gas appliances out of an existing structure “than it is to just design it to use clean energy” from the start.
Transportation recorded its biggest emissions increase since 2015, with gasoline and diesel fuel accounting for 36% of the region’s total. TAF says most of the increase took place in the first half of the year, with fuel sales “largely stabilizing” after that. EVs accounted for less than 1% of the vehicles in the GTHA, but sales hit 48,931 in 2022, a 75% increase over 2021. Transit ridership increased 58%, but that was mainly a rebound from a drastic slump during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cement and steel accounted for the lion’s share of the region’s industrial emissions, with 70% of the total centred in Hamilton, Durham, and Peel regions.
But the power sector outstrips them all, writes Toronto Star climate specialist Marco Chown Oved, citing an investigative story last month that showed Ontario’s gas plants running more than 12 hours per day, when they’re only supposed to be used about 2% of the time for peak power.
“In the GTA, the plants run almost 15 hours a day,” Oved writes, and the controversial Portlands plant in Toronto hit 21 hours during summer peak power demand, “not only increasing carbon emissions but also producing toxic air pollution in the most densely populated region of the country.”
Now, Oved adds, “the provincial government is attempting to build 1,500 megawatts of new natural gas plants to meet growing demand for electricity, especially at peak times, but is having trouble finding willing host communities.”
Hope Meets Urgency
Amid the drastic increase in climate pollution, Purcell’s foreword to the inventory report focuses on how not to be discouraged by the top-line result.
“The data does show areas of progress, where all levels of government, the private sector, and communities and individuals are making a difference,” he writes. “Climate policies and clean technologies are proliferating globally, and right here in the GHTA. We need to focus on that progress, while recognizing the need to move faster.”
As reasons for hope, Purcell cites the sharp increases in EV sales and transit ridership, growing interest in climate mitigation technologies like heat pumps, a mandatory emissions performance for existing buildings now under development in Toronto, a four-fold increase in home retrofit rates across Canada, and federal Clean Electricity Regulations.
But despite all of that activity, “getting on track requires a major course correction,” he stresses. “We need to see emissions falling 9% every year to reach our climate targets. The most important priority is to stop locking in carbon by investing in new fossil fuel equipment and infrastructure. Every new gas power plant, gas-heated building, or gas-powered vehicle is a lost opportunity to invest in a clean energy future.”
And the last year shows that the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“As our team prepared this report, we watched global temperature reach new heights while wildfires burned in a record-shattering fire season intensified by climate change,” he writes. “Over 200,000 Canadians evacuated homes, including the entire city of Yellowknife, and the fires themselves will be the largest source of carbon emissions in Canada this year. We are the first generation in Canada to experience the impacts of climate change at this scale.”