Canada’s Fossil Fuel Race Away From Climate Security

The burning of fossil fuels is the main cause of weather breakdown, ocean acidification and the suffocating air pollution that is killing millions each year.

For more than 30 years, Canada has promised to do its part to solve these crises by bringing our vast burning of fossil fuels under control. Instead, we keep increasing the amount we burn. That is according to the data of the last BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

This data also shows that Canada is slow to expand the climate-safe and less-lethal energy sources we need to switch to, such as hydro, nuclear, wind and solar. As a result, fossil fuels’ formidable lead in energy use in Canada continues to grow.

Canadians now burn more fossil fuels per person than any of our peer nations in the wealthy Group of Seven (G7) or the European Union. And while almost all of these nations have managed to reduce their climate pollution since 1990, Canada has not. We still broadcast much more.

Canada’s failure over several decades to reduce the burning of fossil fuels has left Canadians and our economy increasingly exposed to the rapidly spreading climate crisis.

To illustrate Canada’s growing fossil fuel problem, I’ve created a series of charts using the latest energy data from BP.

Burning up

My first chart lets you compare Canada’s energy use last year to what we used in 1990, the year Canada first pledged to reduce climate pollution.

Canada use of fossil fuels and clean energy 1990 vs 2021

Back then, Canadians burned seven exajoules of fossil fuels.

(Note: An “exajoule” (EJ) is an energy metric used by BP and others to compare different energy sources. It is roughly equal to the energy of burning 163 million barrels of oil.)

For the next 30 years, instead of reducing our carbon burn like we promised, we keep increasing it. Last year we burned nine exajoules of fossil fuels, two more than in 1990.

By way of scale, the combined nations of Central America currently burn about one exajoule of fossil fuels each year. So Canada has increased its burning of fossil fuels by twice the value of Central America since 1990. That’s the path to a chaotic, unsafe climate future.

The green bars on the graph show how much climate-safe energy Canada uses. this increased for just one exajoule, only half.

Canada’s failure over several decades to reduce the burning of fossil fuels has left us and our economy increasingly exposed to the rapidly spreading climate crisis. #ClimateCrisis #cdnpoli #FossilFuels @saxifrages writes for @NatObserver

Fossil fuels are moving away

As my chart below highlights, the already formidable advantage of fossil fuels over cleaner alternatives has grown even larger.

Canada use of fossil fuels and clean energy 1990 vs 2021

In 1990, fossil fuels had a three exajoules advantage over climate-friendly energy sources in Canada. Now, the gap has grown to four exajoules.

Three decades ago, the climate task facing Canadians was to eliminate seven exajoules of energy from fossil fuels. That’s a lot of energy to replace or reduce. But back then, we also had several decades ahead of us to design an elegant energy transition.

Instead of acting, Canada burned precious decades while making the problem even bigger. Today, Canadians face a much bigger task: eliminating nine exajoules per year of fossil fuels. And we have much less time to do it. The climate crisis is now hitting our communities, food supply, security, economy, and the rich ecosystems we cherish and depend on with increasing fury.

The impacts will continue to grow more dangerous until we have eliminated the burning of fossil fuels.

Wasted coal profits

There is one form of fossil fuel that Canada has acted on: the burning of coal in power plants.

Canada use of fossil fuels and clean energy 1990 vs 2021

This effort was led by Ontario with its Regulation of Cessation of the Use of Coal in 2007. The provincial government calls this “the largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction action on the continent.” It remains Canada’s biggest climate hit to date.

But, as the chart below highlights, all the climate progress made by Canada from coal cuts was wiped out four times over by our huge increase in burning oil and gas.

For those who like geeky details, coal burning decreased by 0.7 EJ, while oil and gas burning increased by 2.7 EJ.

One step forward, four steps back.

On the plus side, Canadians are close to phasing out coal-fired power plants. Less than half an exajoule of burning coal remains. And Canada has laws on the books to shut down most of that.

But the other side of the coin is that Canada has now played its coal card, and yet the burning of fossil fuels continues to increase.

To make meaningful climate progress now, Canada must make big, fast cuts in burning oil and gas. These now add up to 95 percent of our burning of fossil fuels.

However, Canada has been giving the green light to economic and climate policies that do the opposite. Both oil and gas flaring have increased relentlessly in Canada. Both reached all-time highs in 2019.

global speed bumps

Until now, the only thing that has stopped fossil burning in Canada has been two major global crises.

Fossil fuel and clean energy use in Canada 1990-2021

In 2009, the sudden global financial collapse turned off Canada’s fossil fuel burner, for a single year. And in 2020, the global COVID pandemic did it again.

But even these global crises were only temporary roadblocks in Canada’s determined acceleration down the climate cliff. In both cases, fossil burning rebounded strongly the following year.

In fact, it took only a year for Canada’s fossil gas flaring to erase the fallout from the pandemic and reach a record level in 2021.

Both global economic crises also put a damper on Canada’s climate-safe energy. According to BP data, Canada’s climate-safe energy peaked in 2017 and has been struggling through years of decline ever since.

Overall, however, Canada’s energy trends have been remarkably stable since 1990. Burning of fossil fuels continues to increase. And it continues to rise much faster than climate-friendly energy. The gap between climate-friendly energy and climate-destructive energy continues to grow. And the amount of fossil fuel burning that Canadians must eliminate to preserve a livable climate also continues to grow.

There is no sign in this data that Canada is turning around its addiction to fossil fuels.

super burners

So far, we have looked at the total burning of fossil fuels in Canada.

Another revealing comparison I found in the BP data is the amount of fossil fuels burned per person.

My chart below shows fossil fuel burning per capita among Canada’s peers in both the G7 and the European Union. Combined, these 31 nations own more than half of the world’s wealth, produce half of the world’s GDP, and emit a third of climate pollution.

Where are the Canadians?

Fossil fuel burning per capita in 2021 for the G7 and EU-27 nations
Burning of fossil fuels per capita in the G7 nations and the EU. Data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2022.

Yes, unfortunately, we are in first place, burning more per person.

Canadians now burn almost four times more fossil fuels per person than the world average; triple the French or British; and more than double that of the Germans and Japanese. Heck, even Americans now burn less per person than we do. They used to burn a lot more than we do, but even the land of Trump climate denial and Yahoo’s oil cowboys now burns less than we do.

And, of course, all of our overblown burning of fossil fuels comes with huge amounts of climate pollution.

weather rogue

My final graph shows the climate progress these same nations have made since 1990.

Green bars show reductions in climate pollution. As you can see, almost all of our peers in this group have reduced their emissions. Not Canada. We are one of the few climate offenders, we pollute even more.

Change in Canadian, G7 and EU-27 emissions between 1990 and 2020 (Copenhagen Accord target year)
Climate pollution changes from 1990 to 2020 in the G7 nations and the EU. Data from the National Inventory Report of each nation before the UNFCCC.

Europeans have reduced their climate pollution by a third.

The British have cut their climate pollution in half.

We have raised our highest. Is this really what we want to be?

If Canadians ever want to get out of the rut of growing fossil fuel addiction and endless climate failure, we could adopt the same carbon budgeting policies that have worked so well for our Commonwealth peers in the UK.

At this point, we know what works and what doesn’t.

Continuing climate-driven fires is not our only option. We can choose a different and more hopeful path.

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