Canada’s CO2 emissions

2 min read


Jordan Flagel

Sustainability & Environmental Specialist, certified GRI professional for sustainability reporting

Canada is the third-largest country in North America by population, the second-largest country in the world by land area, and the first nation of hockey. With a total area of 9.9 million square kilometers, Canada touches the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic Oceans, making it the country with the longest coastline, and the only country in the world to border three oceans (unless you count Russia’s Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic Sea). Due in large part to the vastness of the country and the harsh realities of a northern climate – but the relatively low population – CO2 emissions in Canada are much higher than in most areas of the world per capita but overall remain much lower than some of the biggest emitters. This article describes all aspects of CO2 emissions in Canada and elaborates on various factors that will determine the future of the country’s carbon footprint.

CO2 emissions in Canada per capita

The people of Canada are even more diverse than its land. After initial Indigenous settlement by First Nations people, waves of European colonization have given way to a multicultural nation where people from all over the world now call home. Canadians largely enjoy the outdoors and natural environment of such a beautiful landscape, but cold weather and a highly industrialized society contribute to relatively high CO2 emissions per citizen. 

How much GHG does an average person emit in Canada? While the population of just under 40 million is not enough to add to global emissions in the same way as much larger countries, the per capita numbers are sobering: the average Canadian citizen emitted 19.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (t CO2 eq) in 2019, the year before COVID temporarily changed how things. Between 1990 and 2000, per capita emissions in Canada increased from 21.7 t CO2e to a peak of 23.9 t CO2e, meaning that there has been some progress in recent years for Canadians in consciously minimizing their carbon output.

What creates CO2 emissions in Canada?

There are many factors that make up the entirety of carbon emissions in Canada, the most important of which are industry, transport, residential heating, and energy production. Canadians are very aware of the impact that CO2 has on the climate, even in the oil-producing Western provinces, though people are split on what should be done for the future. Canada has introduced a Federal carbon tax and has set limits to cap emissions for major industries, especially in the oil sands.  Fortunately, given Canada’s vast water resources, hydropower is the main source of electricity and has saved billions of tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere over the past 100+ years that hydro has been running in place of coal or other fossil fuel electricity sources. 

CO2 emissions in Canada’s transport sector

Carbon can be emitted in the transport sector in different ways. There is the movement of goods, which typically requires large vehicles, and the movement of people, which can be done in a variety of ways. Both can also be done by train, but, in Canada, this is only practical for one of the two.

How are goods moved in Canada?

Goods are moved in Canada primarily by rail and truck transport. With two major ports on the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, goods can be shipped into Canada from anywhere overseas and brought across the country using the Canadian Pacific Railroad, or using the country’s vast network of highways. Unfortunately, given the geography of Canada’s landmass, with more than 90% of the population living below the 50th parallel of latitude, goods must be transported very long distances overland to reach consumers in all major cities. 

How do people travel across Canada?

Again, due to Canada’s geography, travel requires traversing large distances. Unlike Europe, where you can take a 5-hour train ride to cross six different countries, taking the train across the singular country of Canada takes multiple days. Train travel is also expensive in Canada, relegating it mainly to tourists with extra time and extra money to spend instead of flying. Road travel is also very popular for regional travel, for instance between major cities in adjacent provinces or from any city to many of the thousands of lakes that Canadians frequent year-round, even in the cold!

Is cycling popular in Canada?

Cycling is not really popular in Canada, at least in comparison with other cycle-friendly nations such as the Netherlands. However, while it is not expressly popular, that does not mean that it does not exist. Many cities feature cycling lanes in urban areas, such as in Calgary, which is known as the headquarters of dozens of oil companies. Yes, it is not common for employees of fossil fuel companies to bike to work in the downtown core. but it does happen more than you may think. It is also more seasonably popular; in the summertime, Canada’s cycling activity increases dramatically compared to the frozen months of winter – though you will still see the odd person with thick, studded tires braving negative temperatures to keep cycling through the season. 

Public transportation in Canada

Public transportation in Canada varies from city to city. When it comes to how often Canadians use public transport, it varies dramatically across the country. While cities such as Montreal have a relatively good public transit system, most of the country relies on personal vehicles for travel. Cities such as Vancouver have a public transit system that stretches from the coast up far into the mainland, but it is not enough to adequately serve the more than 3 million residents of the greater Vancouver area.

Cars in Canada – how important are internal combustion engine vehicles?

Cars are very popular in Canada, as most citizens are reliant on them for daily transportation. However, the internal combustion engine may not be as popular in coming years. Electric vehicles have been deemed mandatory beginning in 2030, which, combined with a clean electric grid that is only getting cleaner, should have a positive impact on emissions from vehicle traffic. However, with train travel not being practical given Canada’s massive geography, most long-distance travel can only be realistically accomplished by flight. This negatively impacts the average Canadian’s carbon footprint because Canadians are known the world over for being avid travelers – especially in winter when any citizens lucky enough to be able to get away from the snow often take up that chance! Still, CO2 emissions from the transportation system in Canada are sure to decrease as electric vehicles become the norm, helped by the clean electricity grid they will charge their batteries with.

Energy sources in Canada – what runs the country?

Canada is a major oil producer and its vast land offers a multitude of mining opportunities. But the major drivers of Canada’s energy are cleaner than you might think. As stated above, hydro power is the largest producer of electricity across the country, creating carbon-free energy for an increasing number of electric cars, but also for all the buildings and personal electric devices that all contribute to energy usage in the country. Aside from that, natural gas is used as a heating source for those cold winter months. While this still produces CO2 emissions, it is much less than coal or oil, and can be beneficial if used as a placeholder for better energy sources as they come along. 

The Canadian energy mix

Canada has a slightly higher usage rate of renewable energy sources than the rest of the world. In 2018, Canada obtained 16.3% of its energy supply from renewable energy sources (RES). For comparison, OECD countries, on average, got 10.5% of their energy supply from renewable sources, while the world average was 13.4%

Canadian RES: What renewable energy sources are the most popular in Canada?

As stated several times throughout this article, hydropower is the most abundantly used RES in Canada. However, there are others that are becoming more widely utilized, especially in certain geographical areas of the country. 

Hydroelectricity in Canada – utilizing a vast supply of flowing water

With many suitable rivers across the entire country, hydropower is used in all regions of Canada, to varying degrees. The top-producing provinces are Quebec, British Columbia, and Manitoba, followed by Ontario and Newfoundland-Labrador. These 5 provinces make up half of the 10 provinces in the country, but provide more than 95% of all hydroelectricity in Canada!

Wind power in Canada – harnessing the wide-open spaces of the prairies!

Out in the Western prairie provinces, particularly Alberta and Saskatchewan, which have the lowest hydro resources in the country, wind power has emerged as a viable source of energy in the wide open spaces of the rural regions. Alberta’s 1.8 GW of wind power leads the country, and there has also recently been an increase of solar uptake in this region as well. 

Industry in Canada – an overview

The four key main industries in Canada are the natural resource sector, the mining sector, manufacturing, and the service industry.

As the second-largest country in the world, Canada is largely underpopulated and offers a vast source of natural resources. The sector is driven largely by forestry, fishing, agriculture, mining, and energy sectors. Canada is the world’s 8th largest exporter of agricultural products including grains, oil seeds and specialty crops. Government spending in support of research and development in this sector has increased in recent years.

The oil and gas markets in Canada are a lucrative business, with the world’s 3rd largest proven crude oil reserves and 18th largest proven natural gas reserves at their disposal. 35% of the world’s oil and gas companies reside in Alberta, Canada. Forests are also a major source of wealth for Canadians, providing a wide range of economic, social and environmental benefits. There are also currently over 800 mines across Canada, employing more than 363,000 workers. The country ranks as the top producer of potash and uranium, with a ranking in the top 5 for nickel and diamonds as well. 

Industries such as mining and fossil fuel production are hard on the environment and are responsible for a large amount of emissions that cannot be reduced due to the nature of their products. However, the service industry has great potential to lower emissions and that is good news for the entire country. How important is the service industry to Canada? The short answer is that it is incredibly important! Healthcare, transportation, construction, banking, tourism, and more are all within the service industry – and these are the things that really make the country operate on a human level. 

What can be done to lower CO2 emissions in Canada?

Reducing CO2 is a task we must undertake together. Our success in achieving climate goals depends as much on the government as it does on businesses and individuals – without multifaceted cooperation, we have no chance of reducing our emissions.

How can I reduce emissions on my own?

You can always offset them by purchasing TerGo packages, each of which is created by planting trees to absorb and store CO2 through our partner project in Belize. By purchasing TerGo packages you will not only reduce your carbon footprint, but will also contribute to the creation of better jobs in Belize, helping to support local farmers while funding the restoration of biodiversity in one of the most naturally beautiful countries in the world. 

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