Canada has no excuses for not cutting carbon emissions

Carbon emissions myths

Canada has one of the highest per capita carbon emissions in the world, nearly 15 metric tons per person.

When it comes to cutting that, there’s a tendency to lead with, “it’s not our fault” and list reasons why Canada cannot be expected to do any better. Let's look more closely at those arguments.

Canada’s emissions are higher because we have more forest and therefore more forest fires—Does that explain Canada’s emissions? The grim answer is wildfires are not raising Canada’s 15 metric tons per capita because they are not counted towards the total.

Canada’s emissions are higher because it is cold—There’s an argument to be made that Canada’s emissions are high because we experience serious winters, sometimes as low as -30 C. Unfortunately, that doesn’t wash. Finland (6.97 tons per capita in 2021) and Sweden (3.82 tons of CO2 per capita in 2021) also have serious winters (plus more saunas) without getting anywhere near Canada’s 15 metric tons per person. The built environment is a significant fraction of our carbon emissions. Why do buildings contribute so much to Canada’s footprint? In Canada, we make inefficient choices when it comes to heating and cooling, and a combination of old stock and less aggressive building codes lead to leaks in building envelopes as well as insufficient insulation.

Canada’s emissions are higher because it is big—Transportation is a main contributor to Canada’s emissions. Here, we have to separate transportation into two categories— freight and private vehicles. About one third of transportation emissions come from transporting freight.

Rail can move the same amount of freight using less fuel and 68% of Canada’s freight goes by rail, one of the highest rates in the world. That is is good. Private vehicles are where Canada really does poorly. We purchase vehicles with low gas mileage, we purchase heavier vehicles and, basically, we buy more trucks.

Do we drive more trucks because of Canada’s winters? The biggest boost to winter driving safety comes from winter snow tires, which have better tread and remain pliable at low temperatures. The second most important thing is having all-wheel drive, which gives traction to get going. Vehicle mass is third in line, and not a strategy employed in Finland or Sweden.

Canada is one of the largest producers of oil and gas in the world. Oil and gas extraction are simply high-emission industries—Let’s ignore, for the moment, the carbon emissions that come from burning fossil fuels and look at carbon emissions from extracting and refining fossil fuels.

It takes 30% more carbon emissions to get the average barrel of Canadian oil out of the ground. How can a barrel of oil have a bigger carbon footprint? Let's look at two key points—leakage of methane/natural gas and extracting oil from the oil sands. Many wells designed to extract oil leak methane/natural gas. Methane is a greenhouse gas 40 times stronger than carbon dioxide. Current studies don’t measure methane/natural gas leakage accurately and the federal government has only just begun to tighten standards.

In the cartoon version of the world, when an oil well is drilled, oil shoots out of the ground. The reality is it often takes energy to make energy. This is nowhere more apparent than for oil extracted from the oil sands. This process is both more expensive and results in more carbon emissions per barrel of oil. Unfortunately, according to Natural Resources Canada, 97% of Canada’s oil reserves are in oil sands and oil sands extraction is expected to increase from 3.1 million barrels per day in 2022 to 3.7 million barrels per day in 2030.

Canada is the “Great White North” and our communities use diesel generators—In 2018, Canada’s energy regulator estimated 200,000 people in Canada who live in remote and rural communities are dependent on diesel generators. However, in 2018 the total Canadian population was 37 million, making people living off-grid less than 1% of the total. We may think of ourselves as the “Great White North” but vastly more people live in urban areas with public transportation than in remote communities.

It’s not the weather. It’s not the distances. It’s not oil wells per se. It is not diesel generators. Wildfires are a disaster for both the forests and the planet, but not a contributor to Canada’s high per capita carbon footprint.

We can do better, and we should.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Methane and natural gas

Methane and natural gas

(Castanet is introducing a new bi-weekly column on sustainablility. Columnist Kristy Dyer has has worked in the sustainability field for 10 years and has written about the subject since 2012. Her column, Sustainability Spotlight will appear on Castanet every second Tuesday.)

Methane is bad. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential approximately 30 times worse than carbon dioxide. It is, in fact, the second largest contributor to global warming. In order to limit climate change to 1.5 C, we need to make immediate and severe reductions in methane emissions.

Natural gas is good. It has the word “natural” in its name. It is a cleaner fossil fuel, creating less air pollution than coal. For every kilowatt hour of electricity, coal emits 1,975 grams of carbon dioxide. Natural gas emits only 700 grams. That’s a 60% reduction.

The paradox of these statements is that natural gas is methane—the methane content of natural gas is 85% to 90%. And natural gas contributes to global warming from the well to your kitchen stove.

Let’s look closer at points where natural gas contributes to global warming, especially flaring at the wellhead and leakage during transportation from well to home.

One of the strangest aspects of drilling for fossil fuels is flaring. Flaring is where natural gas is burned at the site of the well for no productive purpose. The well can be in a developing country, where equipment isn’t available to capture the natural gas. It can be in a remote region where it isn’t cost effective to transport the natural gas. The well might produce small amounts of natural gas that isn’t worth the cost to collect. It may have dangerous variations in pressure that are relieved by flaring. Flaring natural gas at wells generates huge carbon emissions. According to the World Bank, flaring produces 350 million tonnes of CO2e emissions every year.

If flaring is bad, leakage of natural gas is worse. We all know of the danger of natural gas leakage in homes. If you detect the rotten egg smell it is an emergency and you should leave the house immediately and call 911. However, natural gas leakage happens at every step along the way from wellhead to your house.

Even during the flaring process, some gas fails to ignite and is released directly into the atmosphere. The World Bank estimates 40 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases are emitted annually from unburnt methane during flaring. Leakage can happen by design at the well when natural gas is vented rather than flared. It happens due to the extraction process through underground cracks and water pressure changes from the wellhead. There are leaks along the transportation chain and at residences and businesses.

A 2012 study by the Environmental Defense Fund of US systems found 2.3% of natural gas is leaked annually, a total of 13 million tonnes. Natural gas extraction and transportation adds a significant amount to the methane generated by landfills and agriculture.

So, is extracting and using natural gas bad for the planet? The answer comes in two parts. While natural gas is 60% cleaner than coal, solar and wind are 92% and 95% (respectively) better per kilowatt hour than natural gas. These numbers take manufacturing into consideration.

In addition to being cleaner, solar and wind farms are also cheaper to build than natural gas plants. Rather than settle for second best, we should push for state of the art renewables to generate our energy. However, natural gas has a key part to play in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

There are many industrial processes that require high temperatures. One of the most obvious is the production of cement, which requires heating to 2000 C. It is difficult to create these super-high temperatures from electricity. Currently, the high temperatures needed by cement are generated by burning coal and natural gas.

Eventually these industries may be powered using green hydrogen—hydrogen produced by renewable power. Today, we don’t have good alternatives. While we push for better solutions, natural gas may be the best choice for industrial processes.

No one in their right mind would select methane today as a fuel of choice for residential and commercial heating. We need to stop installing new natural gas lines and transition HVAC and hot water heaters to energy efficient electrical appliances.

Natural gas extraction technology needs to be updated to leak less methane, and natural gas transportation should be inspected and monitored for leaks.

We need to invest in research on low-carbon ways to create high temperatures for industrial processes. And finally, when natural gas is touted as a clean fuel, we need to remember it is methane, a potent greenhouse gas that should be handled with care.

Methane is released at each step in both traditional and hydraulic natural gas drilling. Figure by Brad Wierbowski, Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

More Sustainability Spotlight articles

About the Author

Kristy Dyer has worked in the sustainability field for more than 10 years, including work with solar energy in New Mexico and cleantech in Silicon Valley. After she moved to the Okanagan, she ran a small business, Teaspoon Energy, doing energy audits of large houses. Most recently, she worked for a B.C. business doing carbon footprints for tourism organizations.

She has written about sustainability since 2012. You can find her columns archived at TeaspoonEnergy.blogspot.com.

Dyer has a background in physics and astronomy, and has occasionally been caught trying to impersonate an engineer.

A long-time member of First Things First, Penticton’s local climate change group, whose goals are to educate and lobby for solutions to the climate crisis, Dyer is honoured to live, work and play in the unceded, ancestral and traditional territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation.

You can contact her at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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