Boosting the economy while decreasing emissions: How Canada’s local urban policy and light rail projects can help achieve its international Paris Agreement carbon emissions goals


Canada’s commitment to the Paris Agreement is a huge advancement for its future environmental policies and global reputation, but it is easier to make a promise than it is to fulfill one. A localized, urban transportation policy may help Canada meet its international commitment.

It is commonly accepted that the health of the economy and environment are not mutually exclusive. If this is the case, Canada should attempt to reach its carbon emissions targets and simultaneously improve its economy. The challenge, of course, is how? Could a reduction of automobile use, by developing light rail transit in Canada’s metropolitan areas, be part of the solution?

Much of the difficulty of reaching the carbon targets is that restructuring the economy towards fewer carbon intensive-endeavours, such as funding research and development for clean energy, may be too time-consuming and financially costly since the return on investment is often ambiguous. It could also be politically devastating for governments that choose to mitigate  natural resource industries in the economy where the industry is quite prevalent, such as in Canada.


Since 2000, Canada’s oil and gas extraction industry hovered at around 6% (Figure 1) of its total GDP. The oil and gas industry brings several benefits to Canadians and helps improve their standard of living, but the industry’s magnitude certainly complicates achieving the Paris carbon emissions targets. The situation is even more complex since a significant portion of the oil and gas extraction industry has typically accounted for more than 70% of its total mining and quarrying industry (Figure 2). Additionally, according to a report from Environment and Climate Change Canada (2017), the oil and gas sector was the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions followed by the transportation sector (p. 8-9).

Figure 1


Source: Statistics Canada. Table 379-0031 - Gross domestic product (GDP) at basic prices, by North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), monthly (Canadian dollars). Seasonally adjusted. Prices changed to 2007 dollars.

Figure 2


Source: Statistics Canada. Table 379-0031 - Gross domestic product (GDP) at basic prices, by North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), monthly (Canadian dollars). Seasonally adjusted. Prices changed to 2007 dollars.

Considering the sheer size, importance, and recent politically charged discourse of Canada’s oil and gas industry (e.g. pipeline disputes between indigenous groups and the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta), it may be more feasible to mitigate carbon emissions from the transportation sector, especially in urban regions, through local transportation policy. Local policy could achieve this if it were to incentivize the financing, construction, and use of public transportation like light-rail, but it will take a dedicated effort considering Canada’s long history with the automobile.

During the post-war era, Canadian urban planning and development policy regularly prioritized the construction and maintenance of automobile-friendly transportation infrastructure (Simmons et al., 2011, p. 93). Increased automobile-friendly infrastructure to improve commute times seemed to be a logical solution to combat the issues related to rising populations, such as congestion and gridlock. Unfortunately, the incentive to drive more resulted in a higher number of cars on the roads, which in turn increased congestion, gridlock, excessive carbon emissions, and urban sprawl and suburbanization. These issues continue to plague many of Canada’s major metropolitan centres.

Considering Canada’s past planning policies, it is unsurprising that Canada is the second largest producer of carbon emissions per capita amongst the G8 countries (Figure 3). Aside from the previously discussed oil and gas industry, it is important to acknowledge that part of Canada’s addiction to carbon emissions is due to Canada being a large, cold landmass with low-density populations. The demands for electricity, heating, and transportation are therefore much higher in comparison to other developed societies.

Figure 3


Source: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, United States. Note that carbon dioxide emissions are those stemming from the burning of fossil fuels and the manufacture of cement. They include carbon dioxide produced during consumption of solid, liquid, and gas fuels and gas flaring.

If increasing the amount of automobile infrastructure does not resolve civic transportation demands and only results in more carbon emissions, gridlock, and inadequate urban dynamism, Canada’s urban policy should emphasize other modes of transportation. A multifaceted solution like light rail could combat high carbon emissions, gridlock, and inadequate urban dynamism.

Currently, many Canadian cities are undergoing light rail projects – Waterloo, Ottawa, and Surrey, to name a few. Many of the cities face similar issues with respect to growing populations and exhausted public transportation infrastructure. Canada’s population is expected to grow to between 40 million and 63.5 million by 2063, according to Statistics Canada (2015, p. 3). Growing populations generally require greater and more efficient access to jobs, housing, and various other amenities. Growing populations also mean larger ecological footprints for cities. To help reach their carbon emissions goals, Canadians must be able to move efficiently between their place of work, home, and various other points of interest via public transportation, which is achievable with electrical, non-carbon emitting light rail.

Implementing light rail projects would not only resolve transportation demands, road congestion, and high carbon emissions, but it would also be advantageous to local Canadian economies. Simply put, the planning and construction of public transportation infrastructure projects would create jobs across multiple industries like construction, engineering, science, and public policy. This is because infrastructure projects generally require government bureaucracies to contract out work to the private sector, creating a public-private relationship known as an organization-based policy instrument (Howlett, Perl, and Ramesh, 2009, p. 133). These organization-based policy instruments are advantageous because they offer more flexibility and precision when delivering goods and services. This is useful since private entities involved in these efforts are generally more familiar with the requirements and recent developments within their industry than governments. Essentially, this means public funding but private administration for leaner policy implementation.

Aside from the public-private relationships, light rail construction would also help to rebalance the transportation market by providing commuters with additional, more environmentally friendly modes of commuting. Recent data highlights a declining demand for vehicle ownership, in which the trend in the units of passenger vehicles sold amongst Canada’s most populated provinces and territories (Figure 4) has decreased in the past few years. Determining the cause of this trend is difficult, but The Conference Board of Canada (2018) suggests that the demand for vehicles will continue to ease in 2018 and onward. This is largely due to changing market demographics amongst aging baby boomers and millennials who may have greater interest in ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, in addition to the advancements in automobile technology which has extended the life of current vehicle ownership. Thus, the need to purchase a car is reduced. Canada’s auto-industry will suffer if this trend were to continue, but the trade-off would mean less carbon emitting vehicles on the road and a greater likelihood of reaching Canada’s Paris Agreement targets.

Figure 4


Source: Statistics Canada. Table 079-0004 - New motor vehicle sales, Canada, provinces and territories, seasonally unadjusted, annual.

Based on these trends, it is unsurprising that some of these advantages of light rail transit have caught the attention of the federal government. On 16 June 2017, the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, acknowledged the various economic and ecological benefits of Ottawa’s light rail transit system, and pledged an additional $1.09 billion in funding for its extension to suburbs outside the city.

Light rail projects, despite their complexity and costs, are probably, a more feasible solution to help reduce Canada’s carbon emissions rather than completely altering the natural resource industry. Urban and local policy should therefore not be glossed over when considering Canada’s global commitments. Light rail is multifaceted in its approach to appeal to several demographics, assist transportation demand, and simultaneously improve the economy and environment without radically altering current industries. Thus, light rail construction is a politically feasible public infrastructure solution to tackle Canada’s Paris Agreement targets.

It will take serious dedication, but, in time, local Canadian urban policy may prove to be vital for Canada’s global standing and commitments. Cities matter, and it would be short-sighted to ignore them.  

About the author

Usman Khan is a fourth-year political science and public administration student at the University of Ottawa. He has a keen interest in the relationship between Canadian politics and its relation to urban planning and development policy.


Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, United States.

Environment and Climate Change Canada. (2017). Canadian environmental sustainability indicators: greenhouse gas emissions (En4-144/18-2017-PDF). Ottawa, ON: Minister of Environment and Climate Change. Available at:

Howlett, M., Perl, A., & Ramesh, M. (2009). Studying public policy: policy cycles & policy subsystems. Toronto, ON: Oxford University Press.

Prime Minister of Canada. (2017, June 16). Prime Minister announces significant funding to extend Ottawa’s Light Rail Transit system. Retrieved February 22, 2018, from

Simmons, J. et al. (2011.). Political Economy, Governance, And Urban Policy In Canada. In Canadian Urban Regions: Trajectories of Growth and Change (1st ed., pp. 81-98). Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press.

Statistics Canada. (2015). Population projections for Canada (2013 to 2063), provinces and territories (2013 to 2038) (91-520-X). Ottawa, ON: Minister of Industry.

Statistics Canada. Table 379-0031 - Gross domestic product (GDP) at basic prices, by North American Industry Classification System (NAICS), monthly (dollars). Seasonally adjusted. Prices changed to 2007 dollars.

Statistics Canada. Table 079-0004 - New motor vehicle sales, Canada, provinces and territories, seasonally unadjusted, annual.

The Conference Board of Canada. (2018). Canadian Auto Industry to Gear Down in 2018. Retrieved February 25, 2018, from