At last December’s COP25 climate conference in Madrid, two things were made clear: global greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing, and they need to be reduced rapidly if there is to be any chance of keeping average global temperatures below 2⁰ C this century.

How do Canada’s provinces stack up when it comes to reducing their emissions? First, we must understand what constitutes success.

Reducing a jurisdiction’s greenhouse emissions consists of decoupling or coupling, and carbonizing or decarbonizing.

Decoupling is when the economy grows over time while its energy demand falls because of energy reduction measures. If both economic activity and the demand for energy are increasing, the jurisdiction is coupling. By comparing the changes in long-term GDP and the energy consumed (the primary energy supply, PES, which is the energy required to meet the demand for energy), we can determine whether a jurisdiction is decoupling or coupling. We can also determine the strength of the relationship, as illustrated in figure 1, where red indicates that both GDP and energy consumption are growing (inverted coupling occurs in rare cases where energy consumption exceeds GDP growth) and green indicates the greatest reduction in energy consumption relative to GDP growth.

Decarbonizing is when energy-related emissions decline over time, typically with a restructuring of the existing energy system. An increase of emissions shows the jurisdiction is carbonizing. Comparing the relationship between long-term energy usage (PES) and emissions (CO2) indicates whether the jurisdiction is carbonizing or decarbonizing. In (figure 2, red indicates the use of carbon-intensive energy sources (inverted carbonizing can occur in energy-producing jurisdictions). A less carbon-intensive energy system is indicated by the green end.

If both PES and CO2 are declining, the strength of the decarbonization is as in figure 3.

To demonstrate, figure 4 shows the annual percentage changes in Canada’s economy represented by change in GDP (DGDP), energy demand (DPES), and emissions (DCO2), from 2005 (Canada’s Paris Agreement base year) to 2017 (the most recent emissions data for Canada).

During this period, Canada experienced weak coupling because the long-term GDP increased at a greater rate than energy demand, indicating that the economy has become more energy-efficient.

The country’s energy demand was met by a changing energy system: high-emissions sources (coal for electricity, for example) were being replaced by lower-emission sources (such as natural gas) and by new zero-emission sources that reduced emissions to less than they were in 2005; this resulted in weak decarbonizing because long-term CO2 was declining gradually as the energy system grew.

Canada’s GDP, PES, and CO2 are the totals of provincial and territorial GDPs, energy demands, and energy-related emissions (for the figures for the provinces and territories, see table 1). Given the diversity of the GDPs, energy demands and emissions, these totals mask the provinces’ and territories’ respective degrees of decoupling (or coupling) and decarbonizing (or carbonizing).

Which provinces are coupling?

Between 2005 and 2017, five provinces experienced some degree of coupling. Of those, four (Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, and Newfoundland and Labrador) were carbonizing (figure 5), while the fifth, British Columbia, was decarbonizing (figure 6).

The GDP growth in the three Prairie provinces was above the national average, as was the growth in demand for energy. Since long-term PES growth exceeded GDP growth in Alberta and Saskatchewan, coupling was inverted (the linkage between the economy and energy demand is apparent in figure 5: the fall in the price of oil in 2014, the 2011 flooding in Saskatchewan, and the 2016 Fort McMurray fire in Alberta impacted GDP and PES, however, in each case, they were growing again within a year. Manitoba experienced moderate coupling. The economy in Newfoundland and Labrador, unlike in the other oil-producing provinces, grew at a slightly stronger rate than did energy demand, resulting in strong coupling.

Alberta and Saskatchewan were both carbonizing; as the change in Alberta’s CO2 was greater than was Saskatchewan’s, it experienced strong carbonizing and Saskatchewan experience moderate carbonizing. Manitoba underwent weak carbonizing: Its PES growth exceeded its CO2 growth, because the increase in its use of zero-emission electricity was greater than the increase in its use of carbon-intensive energy sources.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, a decline in industrial energy demand reduced both its PES and its CO2; however, an increase in transportation of PES and the increased use of heavy oil for electrical production resulted in CO2 growth marginally exceeding PES growth, and this led to inverted carbonization.

In British Columbia, the carbon tax, the 2009 economic downturn, a decline in energy-intensive industries, and an increase in construction and service industries all contributed to that province’s weak coupling between GDP and energy demand and its weak decarbonizing, indicating limited changes in the energy system.

Decoupling provinces and territories

The remaining five provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Ontario and Quebec) and the territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut) are all decoupling and decarbonizing.

New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have the distinction of being the only provinces to have met Canada’s 30 percent Paris Agreement emissions target (figure 7). Meeting the target has been more a case of accident than design: New Brunswick and Nova Scotia had the worst GDP growth in the country, resulting in a decline in demand for liquid fuels. They experienced strong decoupling (although the decline in energy consumption relative to GDP growth was greater in New Brunswick than Nova Scotia).

Although both provinces are decarbonizing, their energy systems still rely heavily on emissions-intensive sources. Consequentially, any change in PES typically has a corresponding change in CO2, indicating weak decarbonizing. The Point Lepreau nuclear reactor is both a bonus and a hindrance to New Brunswick: its 2008-11 refurbishment resulted in the increased use of petroleum products and natural gas (coal declined) and an increase in its emissions, which spiked in 2011.

The remaining three provinces, Prince Edward Island, Ontario and Quebec, and the territories, were all decoupling; in each case, the decline in PES growth relative to GDP growth meant that all were decoupling, although it was weaker in Quebec and the territories than in Ontario and Prince Edward Island.

The energy systems of these provinces have all experienced a degree of restructuring since 2005, as can be seen in figure 8. In Ontario, the decision to shutter coal and the increase in the use of natural gas and renewables resulted in moderate decarbonizing. Prince Edward Island’s increased use of wind electricity also resulted in moderate decarbonizing; however, its emissions increased between 2009 and 2013 because of its reliance on Point Lepreau. Quebec experienced strong decarbonizing because of a reduction in the consumption of coal and liquid fuels, coupled with an increased use of natural gas. The territories experienced inverted decarbonizing, the result of a decline in natural gas usage and an increase in the use of petroleum products.

This snapshot of the state of decoupling and decarbonizing in Canada’s provinces and territories between 2005 and 2017 shows that, for the most part, the country is split between the post-industrial east (decoupling and decarbonizing) and the industrialized west (coupling and carbonizing). As a consequence, Canada has weak coupling and weak decarbonizing.

Moving the country to some combination of decoupling and decarbonizing will be necessary if Canada’s 2030 emissions-reduction target or the  federal government’s 2050 net-zero-emissions pledge are to be met.

Understandably, few provinces want to reach the target the way New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have. The rise of PEI’s emissions during the Point Lepreau shutdown highlights the benefits (and drawbacks) of using carbon-intensive fuels to meet energy shortfalls.

Ontario, which has a relatively strong economy, appears to be heading toward the 2030 emissions-reduction target. However, it might turn out to be difficult to achieve because much of the “easy” decarbonizing has already been achieved with the restructuring of much of the province’s electrical system, and the provincial government has scrapped many of the previous government’s emissions-reduction policies.

British Columbia, seen by many as a carbon-pricing exemplar, has stabilized its emissions with weak coupling but weak decarbonizing; however, its emissions are nowhere near the 30 percent target. If demand for energy increases, coupling will be strengthened, and if this demand continues to be met with carbon-intensive energy sources, the province could return to being a carbonizing state.

Ideally, the national carbon-pricing program will nudge Canadians to decouple and decarbonize, thereby reducing our emissions. However, an increase in demand for energy in 2018 suggests that Canada will remain weakly decarbonizing, because 95 percent of the increase was met by carbon-intensive sources.

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Larry Hughes
Larry Hugues est professeur au département d’ingénierie électrique et informatique de l’Université Dalhousie. Ses recherches portent sur les questions de sécurité énergétique en Nouvelle-Écosse et dans les autres provinces atlantiques.

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