Is Canada on track to meet its climate promise? A preview of the country's upcoming international progress review

Substantial support came from Michael Yamoah and Han Chen for the information below.

Is Canada on track to meet its current climate target? That is the question that will be explicitly debated in the coming days as the Canadian government has to defend its action (or inaction) before the world. Unfortunately the short answer to the question is "no" as its current actions will lead to emissions that are significantly higher than its current climate target through 2020. In short, Canada's rapidly growing tar sands emissions (enabled in part by pipelines like Keystone XL tar sands pipeline) will continue to be a barrier to Canada meeting its international climate promises. An NRDC backgrounder on Canada's climate progress outlined briefly below provides more detail on the issues.

Establishing a strong, credible, and transparent system for tracking greenhouse gas emissions and national climate policies is an essential part of addressing climate change. To that end, the international assessment and review (IAR) process was established for developed countries as a part of the Copenhagen and Cancun Agreements. The process seeks to provide credible and transparent information to help hold countries accountable to follow through on their international commitments with the necessary domestic policies to meet their targets. This week, 24 developed countries will be assessed in Bonn, including Canada. The idea is that this consistent reporting system allows everyone to compare the relative efforts of developed countries and to shine a spotlight on those countries that aren't following through.

As part of the overall process, a number of very good questions have been posed from other countries - including Sweden's question about Canada's policy on tar sands expansion, and Brazil's question about whether Canada would improve upon its "low level of ambition" and consider increasing the level of emissions reductions. So far, these questions have not been answered by Canada, but are likely to be addressed in the multilateral assessment sessions June 3-5th when climate negotiators meet in Bonn, Germany.

In advance of Canada's review at the UNFCCC meeting, here is an overview of where Canada stands on its current climate commitments, how its expanding tar sands emissions post the greatest challenge to the country's climate obligations, and an assessment of its proposed future commitments for the post-2020 period. More detail can be found in the NRDC Backgrounder.

Canada: A Need for Greater Climate Ambition and Action

Canada is expected to miss its 2020 Copenhagen obligations by a wide margin -- mostly due to increased tar sands expansion. As of 2014, Canada is only expected to meet half of its Copenhagen pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Even worse, Canada's emissions are increasing, and it is now expected to miss its 2020 goal by an amount that is more than the combined carbon pollution of every passenger car, truck, bus, train and plane in the country (127 MtCO2e). Looking ahead, Canada is on a path to increasing emissions through 2030, due largely to the expansion of its tar sands industry.

Tar Sands: While emissions from conventional crude oil production and natural gas production and processing are expected to fall by 2020, tar sands emissions are growing rapidly and are expected to continue to do so (See Figure 1). By 2020, tar sands emissions are expected to be nearly three times the level in 2005 according to the Government of Canada's Sixth National Report on Climate Change, (2014).

Figure 1: Canada's emissions from Tar Sands

Although the Canadian government announced a series of new measures as part of its post-2020 targets, it still failed to address the largest source of emissions, tar sands. Historically, the Canadian government has not followed through with its promises to address this troubling growth in tar sands emissions. Instead, the Canadian government has aggressively promoted unchecked tar sands expansion. The expanding tar sands industry bears heavy responsibility for Canada's failure to meet its international climate commitments.

Rather than addressing the growing carbon emissions from its tar sands sector, the government has as discussed in this backgrounder actively facilitated tar sands expansion by eliminating environmental protections, stripping away public review processes, lobbying internationally for approval of new tar sands pipelines, and undermining clean energy policies in Canada, the United States, and the European Union.

Failing to meet current Global Emissions Targets

In 2007, Canada became the only ratifying country to have withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol - with its emissions that year nearly 20 percent higher than when it joined Kyoto. In 2009, Canada committed to a target at the Copenhagen climate summit of reducing emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, as the administration's position had been to "harmonize" Canada's climate targets with those of the United States. That same year, Prime Minister Harper pledged with other leaders at the G8 meeting to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050. However, Canada has failed to stay on track for either target. Unfortunately, even with current climate mitigation measures in place, emissions are expected to grow between now and 2020, missing the 2020 target by a wide margin (Figure 2 thanks in large part to tar sands oil production. Climate Action Tracker's analysis also indicates that Canada's current policies will lead to a rise in emissions from 2020 through 2030.

Figure 2: Canada's Progress towards 2020 target (MtCO2e)

Canada emissions projections.jpg

Canada's Paris Target

Canada announced its INDC in mid-May - with a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The announced target does not put Canada on an ambitious trajectory, and certainly not a trajectory to reach the 80 percent cut by 2050 to which Canada had committed along with other G8 countries at the 2009 summit. The target also breaks from past precedent, when Canada "harmonized" its climate target with that of the U.S.

Canada's newly announced INDC for 2030 could be improved. If Canada were to harmonize with the U.S. target for 2025, then that would mean a target of 26-28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. There would need to be an even more ambitious target to align with the Harper government's commitment at the 2009 meeting of G8 countries - for an 80 percent emissions reduction by 2050. Unfortunately, Canada is already off trajectory for their 2020 target. Reaching the 2025 target and later targets will require deep reductions as a result of earlier inaction.

Leading Canadian groups argue the government can and should go even further. The Climate Action Network Canada representing over 100 organizations across the country urged that the country commit to reducing emissions roughly 37% below 2005 levels by 2025 (or about 460 Mt CO2e), in line with a target of zero emissions in 2050. A recent UN Report, "Pathways to Deep Decarbonization," also indicated that Canada could reduce emissions by 90 percent relative to 2010 levels through various policy measures.

Figure 3 shows the various emissions reductions scenarios: Canada's current trajectory of increasing emissions, the current INDC emissions trajectory, an ambitious path to 80 percent reductions by 2050, and the path to cutting net emissions to zero by 2050.

Figure 3: Canada's 2025 climate targets under various 2050 scenarios

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Source: NRDC with data from Environment Canada

Aggressive targets are in line with what the leading Canadian provinces have already announced (see Table). With Canada's election occurring sometime before October 2015, there is now more discussion about the potential role Canada could play to get the country back on track with international climate obligations. NRDC has evaluated commitments at the provincial level. At the federal level, Canada's primary opposition parties have agreed on a 34 percent emissions reduction below the 1990 level by the year 2025 and an 80 percent decrease from 1990 levels by 2050 If Canada were take this approach, it this proposal would mean a 51 percent emissions decrease from 2005 levels by 2025, which is far more ambitious than anything the current Conservation government has proposed (see Table 2).

Table 1: Announced Climate Targets of Key Provinces


Current Party Leader of Province

Share of 2005 Levels

Declared 2020 Targets

Declared 2050 targets




15% below 2005 by 2020

50% to 80% below 2005 by 2050




15% below 1990 by 2020

80% below 1990 by 2050

British Columbia



33% below 2007 levels by 2020

80% below 2007 levels by 2050




20% below 1990 levels by 2020

Nova Scotia



10% below 1990 by 2020

Prince Edward Island



10% below 1990 by 2020 and 75% to 85% below 1990 levels in the long-term




New gov't hasn't announced

New gov't hasn't announced

Source: NRDC Compilation based on data from Environment Canada, 2014, p. 94, 103

Table 2: Announced Climate Targets of Key Political Parties at National Level

Political Party

Declared 2025 Targets

Declared 2050 targets


34% below the 1990 by 2025 (51% below 2005)

80% below 1990 by 2050


34% below the 1990 by 2025 (51% below 2005)

80% below 1990 by 2050


34% below the 1990 by 2025 (51% below 2005)

80% below 1990 by 2050

PM Harper Administration


G8 Commitment

Against this broad backdrop, there is significant international attention on the future role Canada will and will not play in Paris as one of the world's top 10 emitters. The coming months leading up to Paris will be undoubtedly important. The current international assessment review (IAR) follows several steps including: (1) submission of official information from Canada on progress towards its target (as outlined in a Biennial Update Report, Sixth National Communication and GHG inventory to the UNFCCC); (2) independent assessment by an expert review team; (3) submission of formal questions from other countries (see here for submitted questions on Canada's progress); (4) formal responses to those questions from Canada, and (5) a "multilateral assessment" where Canada will publicly have to defend its progress.

Canada will be taking part in the final step - the multilateral assessment - this week. NRDC will continue report on Canada's involvement in this process to outline its progress so far and analysis of commitments made during the process.