Pandemic closures that left Canadian cars idling in driveways and garages for weeks last year brought gasoline use to its lowest level in two decades.
But environmental experts say the resulting drop in greenhouse gas emissions will not be permanent.
Data from Statistics Canada shows that Canadians bought 38.6 billion liters of gas in 2020, 14% less than the previous year. Diesel use also fell 9 percent, to the lowest amount since 2009.
It is the smallest amount of gasoline purchased in the course of a year since 2001, and the largest one-year adjustment to the amount of gasoline purchased since at least 1987, when Statistics Canada began reporting data in this way.
More cars on the road and a growing preference for larger trucks and SUVs with larger gasoline engines and tanks drove gasoline use in Canada by more than 16% from the late 1980s to 2000, and then another 17% between 2000 and 2015.
Starting in 2015, sales began to stabilize, a turn of events that the Statistics Canada report attributes to more fuel-efficient vehicles, and the slow but noticeable arrival of hybrids and electric cars.
Then, in 2020, sales fell off a cliff, and not because Canadians voluntarily hung up their car keys for public transportation, or because they suddenly turned to electric cars in droves.
“The 2020 drop in motor fuel sales can be attributed in large part to COVID-19 travel restrictions,” said the statistics agency report, released last spring.
All provinces saw gas sales drop, but Ontario, where the lockdowns lasted the longest, saw the biggest drop at 18 percent. Newfoundland and Labrador posted the smallest decline at seven percent.
Statistics Canada also noted that people took fewer road trips in the summer of 2020, with a 10% reduction in domestic travel and a 96% reduction in travel to the US, mostly avoided because the border It was closed.
A reduction of six billion liters of gasoline and 1.6 billion liters of diesel, translated into greenhouse gas emissions, would reduce Canada’s carbon production by approximately 2.5 percent, or the amount produced by about four million passenger vehicles in the course of a year.
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Canada has promised to reduce its emissions by 40 to 45 percent by 2030, compared to 2005 levels. The most recent report listed 2019 emissions on par with 2005.
Caroline Brouillette, national policy manager for Climate Action Network Canada, said that getting transportation emissions to zero will take more than temporary measures during a pandemic.
“Without structural changes that address the way Canadians move, the emission reductions that could have occurred during the pandemic are unlikely to be permanent,” he said.
Emissions from road transport increased by 18% between 2005 and 2019 and represent a fifth of total emissions.
He said achieving zero-emission transportation will require rethinking how communities are designed to make public and active transportation options more attractive, as well as stronger policies to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles.
Bora Plumptre, a senior analyst at the Pembina Institute, said the emissions cuts during the pandemic “are nothing,” but in the grand scheme of climate change the impact will be negligible because the cuts will not be sustained.
Canadians won’t know for 18 months what the overall effect of the pandemic will be on emissions in 2020, because data is always two years out of date.
A study in the journal Nature Climate Change last March suggested that global emissions fell about seven percent in 2020, almost entirely due to restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
This Canadian Press report was first published on October 5, 2021.