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OTTAWA — A surge in emissions from road traffic, manufacturing, home heating and fossil-fuel production in 2018 almost entirely erased any progress this country had made cutting greenhouse gas emissions since 2005, the federal government reported Wednesday.

Yet Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said he remains confident Canada will still be able to hit its emissions cutting targets because most of the government's emissions-cutting policies had not taken effect by 2018.

The latest national inventory report filed with the United Nations showed 2018 emissions at more than 729 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and its equivalents, the gases the gather in the atmosphere, trap heat, and cause climate change.

That's a jump of 15 million tonnes compared to 2017, which is approximately what 3.2 million passenger cars emit over the course of a year.

The 2018 emissions were almost back to the 730 million tonnes Canada emitted in 2005, an important comparison because Canada's current commitment is to cut emissions to 70 per cent of what they were in 2005 by 2030. Under that commitment, Canada is aiming to have annual emissions fall to 511 million tonnes over the next 10 years.

Ontario, which cancelled its cap-and-trade carbon pricing program midway through 2018, saw a jump in emissions for the first time in eight years. Alberta, which accounts for more than one-third of Canada's total emissions on its own, saw an increase of one million tonnes.

New Brunswick is the only province that recorded a decrease in 2018, of one million tonnes.

Still Wilkinson said the 2018 data doesn't fully reflect Canada's climate plan, including big-ticket items like the federal carbon price, regulations to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, and a clean fuel standard. The carbon price didn't kick in until 2019, methane regulations began just three months ago, and the clean-fuel standard to require most fuels to produce fewer emissions when burned won't apply for another two years.

A report last December said current and planned policies would leave Canada 77 million tonnes shy of the 2030 goal, but that was before the 2018 increase had been factored in.

Dominique Blain, director of the pollutant inventories and reporting division at Environment and Climate Change Canada said she expected emissions to rise because 2018 had a colder winter than usual, requiring more natural gas and fuel oil to be burned for heat.

Residential heating, Canada's love affair with SUVs and pickup trucks, increased numbers of diesel-powered heavy trucks, manufacturing growth and producing more oil and gas were the major contributors to the 2018 emissions increase.

But Blain said the report also suggests Canada's policies for curbing emissions are on the right track because they are targeting the areas with the biggest emissions — policies like subsidies for electric cars and the methane regulations.

National inventory reports take more than a year to finalize so the 2018 data is the most recent now available.

Blain said the 2019 data is just starting to be collected and she is a bit worried the COVID-19 slowdown will impact that process.

The bigger question about COVID-19 and emissions, however, is how much they will plummet during the widest-scale economic shutdown Canada has ever seen.

Blain said Canada won't begin trying to calculate the pandemic's impact on emissions until next year but she said it shouldn't be too difficult to adjust the models. Canada's emissions are calculated using a complex set of formulas that take into account things like how much oil or gas was produced, how much gasoline was sold and what kinds of cars are on the road.

Greg Flato, a senior scientist in the climate research division of Environment Canada, said it's too soon to know what kind of longer-term impact this period will have on either emissions or global warming.

"We don't have any reference for what is happening right now," he said.

In 2008 and 2009, when Canada's economy was in recession, emissions fell significantly but Christian Holz, a postdoctoral researcher on climate at Carleton University and with the Climate Equity Reference Project, said there is no suggestion that decline had any lasting impact. He said there is no doubt there will be a "steep" drop in emissions during the current period, if the post-crisis stimulus plan isn't climate-focused, "there will be a major rebound of emissions."

Opposition parties slammed the Liberal government for the latest report. Both NDP environment critic Laurel Collins and Conservative critic Kerry-Lynne Findlay said the report is proof the Liberal government's policies are not working.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 15, 2020.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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