Canada’s continued reliance on
fossil fuels key to poor environmental record
Canada and Sweden are both northern countries with diverse modern
economies, high standards of living, and long democratic traditions.
They have both also recently witnessed demographic growth and climbing
However, there is a stark contrast in their environmental impact
records. From 1990-2009, Canada’s carbon dioxide emissions increased by
20%, while in Sweden, they decreased by 21%. Whereas Sweden is often
considered a world leader in reducing emissions, Canada has been widely
criticized for its failure to meet international commitments. In fact,
Canada not only has one of the worst CO2 emission records in
the OECD, but also in the world.
In a 2014 study in Canadian Studies in Population, Don Kerr of the
University of Western Ontario investigated the causes behind this
discrepancy using an updated version of Erlich and Holdren’s 1971 IPAT
equation. This equation states that a country’s carbon dioxide emissions
are a product of its population, affluence, and the technology it
employs to produce goods.
Kerr found that the increase in CO2 emissions in Canada can
be partly attributed to its population growth, which surpassed Sweden’s
by nearly 13% over the last twenty years. “Population growth is often
overlooked in comparing our relative records on greenhouse gas
emissions”, says Kerr. A rapidly increasing population indicates
heightened consumption and therefore a larger ecological footprint.
However, both countries have seen similar growth in affluence, with GDP
per capita increasing by 27.9% and 31.1% in Canada and Sweden,
respectively, from 1990-2009. Therefore, while Sweden has “decoupled”
its economic growth from its environmental impact, Canada has not.
Sweden has managed to drive its economic activity while simultaneously
shifting away from fossil fuel use through the development of both
nuclear and hydro electricity. Further, Sweden recently committed itself
to being completely “oil-free” by the year 2020.
Meanwhile, Canada has vast reserves of fossil fuels, and it continues
to rely on them in a context of high demand for energy, particularly for
the production of exports. Kerr emphasizes this dependency as a crucial
factor of Canada’s poor environmental record. Canada’s reliance on these
fuels “has actually increased slightly [over the last twenty years],
while having declined overall for the OECD”, he says. Indeed, the
Canadian government has continuously encouraged investment in crude oil
It is still uncertain whether Canada’s CO2 emissions will
decline over the next decade, meeting government targets, or whether it
will continue the upward trajectory of the last several decades. Kerr
states that he is “not particularly optimistic, as [Canada’s] efforts
have consistently lagged behind most OECD countries in this regard.”
It is important to note, however, that these CO2 emission records
consider only production-based emissions. The emissions created from the
goods that a country imports and consumes are not taken into account.
Canada produces and exports more than Sweden, but Sweden’s consumption
levels are on par with Canada’s. Kerr notes that Sweden’s recorded
emission levels may in fact be understated.
For a summary of the research please see: Population Change and
Lifecourse Strategic Knowledge Research Brief #20,
Population growth, energy use, and environmental impact: Comparing
Canadian and Swedish records on CO2 emissions
For more information, contact Don
Kerr, King’s University College, University of Western