Canada's poor environmental record

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Research Briefs

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 affluence.
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 and pipelines.
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 Ontario

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