Drivers and Impacts of Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Most greenhouse gases (GHGs) can be emitted by both natural processes and human activities. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, human-driven releases of GHG emissions disrupt the natural processes occurring in the atmosphere and are extremely likely to be the dominant cause of the observed warming that has occurred since the mid-20th century. Globally, almost 80% of GHG emissions from human sources come from the burning of fossil fuels and industrial processes. Specific activities include: driving vehicles, electricity production, heating and cooling of buildings, operation of appliances and equipment, production and transportation of goods, and provision of services and transportation for communities. In 2015, about 26% of Canada's total GHG emissions came from the oil and gas sector, 24% from transportation, 11% from electricity generation and 12% from buildings.

Global GHG emissions grew by approximately 51% between 1990 and 2012,Footnote 1 with the bulk of the growth occurring in developing countries. During this period, Canada's share of total global GHG emissions remained at less than 2%.

GHGs have different global warming potentials and different lifespans in the atmosphere. Short-lived climate pollutants, such as methane and hydrofluorocarbons, are GHGs known to be very potent with relatively short lifespans. As such, emission reductions of short-lived climate pollutants can reduce atmospheric levels of these GHGs at a much quicker pace than comparable reductions from longer-lived GHGs. Therefore, immediate action to reduce these particular GHGs can have significant benefits for curbing near-term climate warming.

Canada aims to reduce its GHG emissions to 30% below its 2005 emission levels by 2030. By doing so, it will help to limit global average temperature rise to well below two degrees Celsius.

Key drivers of greenhouse gas emissions

A wide variety of factors have an influence on the level of GHG emissions in Canada. These include Canada's physical geography, demographic changes in its population and economic growth.

Canada has a highly variable climate. This contributes to relatively higher energy use for space heating and cooling in buildings, compared with other industrialized countries. While vast, Canada is also sparsely populated, which leads to longer travel times and higher demand for transportation than in smaller and/or more densely populated countries. In addition, Canada has seen faster than average population and economic growth relative to other developed countries between 2000 and 2012, as well as high international demand for its natural resources, including oil and gas.

Despite these challenges, over the past two decades, Canada has seen a decoupling between growth of the economy and GHG emissions. Over this period, technological improvements and regulations have been adopted and implemented in various economic sectors, particularly for electricity generation, to help reduce emissions.

Other important factors influencing GHG emissions include the adoption of more efficient practices and equipment by consumers and industry as their knowledge about their choices and the impacts of those choices on the environment is improving. Examples include how people commute to work, where businesses decide to locate their manufacturing facilities and the decisions made to increase the efficiency of industrial processes or to manufacture more energy-efficient products.

Key impacts of greenhouse gas emissions

The release of GHGs and their increasing concentration in the atmosphere are already having an impact on the environment, human health and the economy. These changes notably manifest in Canada's North, affecting many indigenous and remote communities. These impacts are expected to become more severe, unless united efforts to reduce emissions are undertaken.

Environmental impacts

  • Overall average annual temperatures are expected to increase.
  • Snow, sea ice and glacier coverage will decrease due to higher temperatures, resulting in rising sea levels and increased coastal flooding. Rising temperatures will also thaw permafrost in the Arctic.
  • Future coastal-erosion rates will likely increase in most areas due to milder winters and smaller ice coverage.
  • Overall precipitation levels are expected to increase across most of the country and during all seasons, except for parts of southern Canada where there are indications of an expected decrease in summer and fall precipitation.
  • The increase in precipitation is expected to be combined with more frequent heavy precipitation events, resulting in higher risks of flooding.
  • Heat waves are likely to increase in frequency and severity, resulting in higher risks of forest fires.
  • Many wildlife species will have difficulty adapting to a warmer climate and will likely be subject to greater stress from diseases and invasive species.

Human health impacts

  • Higher temperatures and more frequent and severe extreme weather events may increase the risk of deaths from dehydration and heat stroke, and of injuries from intense local weather changes.
  • There may be a greater risk of respiratory and cardiovascular problems and certain types of cancers, as temperatures rise and exacerbate air pollution.
  • The risk of water-, food-, vector- and rodent-borne diseases may increase.
  • People living in Canada's northern communities, and vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly, are expected to be the most affected by the changes.

Economic impacts

  • Agriculture, forestry, tourism and recreation may be affected by changing weather patterns.
  • Human health impacts are expected to place additional economic stress on health and social support systems.
  • Damage to infrastructure (e.g., roads and bridges) caused by extreme weather events, thawing permafrost and rising sea levels is expected to increase, impacting local populations and resource development.

Ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Addressing climate change requires action from everyone across all nations. Governments, businesses and individuals need to take significant steps to reduce emissions by using resources more efficiently and adopting new and cleaner technologies.

Governments

The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change is the Government of Canada's plan – developed with the provinces and territories and in consultation with Indigenous peoples – to meet Canada's emissions reduction target and grow the economy.

The plan includes a pan-Canadian approach to pricing carbon pollution, and measures to achieve reductions across all sectors of the economy. It also aims to drive innovation and growth – increase technology development and adoption to ensure Canadian businesses are competitive in the global low-carbon economy.

Implementing the Pan-Canadian Framework is a key milestone noted in the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy. The Strategy sets out the Government of Canada's sustainable development priorities, establishes goals and targets, and identifies actions to achieve them. The 2016–2019 Strategy – Canada's third – outlines the actions toward sustainability that the Government will take in collaboration with partners within Canada and internationally. As such, it supports the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its global sustainable development goals (SDGs).

To learn about the expected impact of GHG regulations developed by the government of Canada, consult the Regulatory Impact Analysis StatementFootnote 2 (also known as a RIAS) which accompanies each regulation. The RIAS outlines the reasons behind the development of a particular regulation, its objectives and its expected costs and benefits. The RIAS also includes details about consultations that were conducted and about how the government intends to track the performance of the regulation.

Businesses

Companies could integrate the need to reduce GHG emissions and carbon pricing considerations into their investment, planning, and operational decisions in order to improve their long-term resilience and competitiveness. Through their actions and investments, companies can also support the transition to a low-carbon economy. For example, over 20 Canadian companies contribute to the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, a voluntary initiative that supports and encourages successful implementation of carbon pricing around the world.

Individuals

Individuals can reduce GHG emissions at home, at work and in everyday activities. We can make a difference by changing our behaviour and making lifestyle decisions that reduce emissions.For more information on how individual Canadians can help to reduce GHG emissions, consult the Top 10 Things You Can Do to Help on Canada's Action on Climate Change website.

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