Canada’s ugly shadow: the “downstream emissions” from our exported oil

Part 1 in a series of 18 discussion papers

In recent years, Canada has ranked as the world’s 10th largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Canada has two important roles in this story. We are among the largest emitting economies, measured by our domestic emissions. So far, we have made no significant contribution to the massive global emissions reductions required. At the same time, we are the world’s 4th largest oil producer, and we are increasing our oil production.

One of the difficulties that has so far impeded our emissions reduction promises in Canada is the disproportionate scale of the emissions in the oil and gas sector, which is our largest emitting sector. In 2019, it accounted for 27% of Canada’s total domestic emissions, 203 Mt out of the total 738 Mt that year (which does not include the much greater share of downstream emissions from Canada’s exported oil which are not counted in our domestic emissions). With rapidly expanding oil and gas production, it has so far proven impossible to achieve any overall emissions reductions in that sector, which by 2019 had increased by 32 Mt above the 2005 level. 

Most of the significant emissions reductions in Canada since 2005 have been in the electricity sector. But those declines have been largely offset by large increases in the oil and gas sector and in the transportation sector.

For the past twenty-six years, governments in Canada have made bold emissions reduction promises that have never been fulfilled. The Liberal Government led by Jean Chretien made an ambitious commitment under the Kyoto Protocol (signed in 1997 and solemnly ratified by Canada’s Parliament in 2002) to reduce Canada’s total emissions 6% below the 1990 level by 2012. That would have required cuts to an annual total of about 580 Mt.

The Liberals left office in 2006. By 2005, Canada’s total emissions had grown to 741 Mt. By that time the 2012 target was beyond reach. The Conservative Government under Stephen Harper formally abandoned the Kyoto target. In December 2009, the Conservative Government made a new commitment to achieve a 17% reduction below the 2005 level by 2020, which would have been about 613 Mt, a goal now missed and long forgotten.

In 2015, in advance of the Paris Agreement, Canada agreed to reduce our national emissions 30% by 2030, below the 2005 level. That pledge, formally made by the Conservative Government on May 15, 2015, was re-affirmed by the Liberal Government at the climate conference in Paris in December 2015. That became Canada’s “Nationally Determined Contribution”, or NDC. It set a new target of 518 Mt for 2030.

The Liberal Government announced in April 2021 that it was increasing Canada’s NDC commitment to a promised reduction in the range of 40% to 45% by 2030.  On March 29, 2022, in its Emissions Reduction Plan, the government revealed that our “notional target” for 2030 is now 443 Mt. We are not remotely on track to achieving that goal.

In 2005, Canada’s emissions reached 741 Mt. By 2019, they had declined very slightly to 738 Mt, which was a 0.5% reduction below the 2005 level over fourteen years. Meeting the new 2030 target would require an additional reduction of about 295 Mt below the 2019 level. During 2020, due to the economic impact of the COVID pandemic, Canada’s emissions dropped to 672 Mt in 2020, a decline of 8.9% that reflected the collapse of economic activity, especially in transportation. It is expected that Canada’s annual emissions by 2022 had grown back to the 2019 level, or close to that. The official data for 2021 and 2022 is not yet available.*

The truth is that despite all the promises and declarations by Ministers at multiple international meetings (including the COP 27 meeting in Egypt that ended on November 20, 2022), the present Liberal Government which took power in October 2015 has, over seven years, achieved no substantial reductions at all in the annual level of Canada’s domestic emissions. This same government, with reckless disregard for the unequivocal warnings of climate scientists, is also far advanced in its ambitious plans to rapidly increase Canada’s oil production to 2030 and 2040, while remaining artfully silent about the consequences.

The total amount of emissions released during the oil production process within Canada’s borders in 2019 was 118 Mt (83 Mt in the oil sands industry and 35 Mt in conventional oil production). Those are just the “upstream emissions”. The much larger share of the emissions released by oil produced in Canada occurs when it is consumed as fuel in foreign markets and released into the atmosphere as tailpipe emissions. Those emissions, about 6-times greater than the upstream share that occurs within Canada’s borders during the oil production process, are referred to as “downstream emissions” (or “Scope 3 emissions”).  The downstream emissions from our exported oil are almost equivalent to the combined volume of all emissions released by all emitting activities of every kind within Canada’s borders, i.e., all our domestic transportation (including all heavy trucks and passenger vehicles driven in Canada), all heavy industry, heating buildings, agriculture, and land use and forests, as well as the emissions released by all oil and gas production activities. They will continue to grow in step with our expanding oil production and exports. The massive scale of the “downstream emissions” from our oil amount to ‘another Canada’, a kind of transnational emitting twin for which we take no responsibility.

* The most recent information, showing the results up to 2020, is found in the National Inventory Report 1990-2020: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada, Environment and Climate Change Canada, April 14, 2022: