Skip to content

We’re small, but our carbon emissions matter to the world

With a national price on greenhouse gas emissions more or less in place, there is little doubt detractors will now ask, why so much effort to reduce Canada’s modest 1.6 per cent of global emissions?

The argument sounds reasonable enough on the face of it. Even if we reduced our emissions to zero, the path to an overheated planet won’t be much changed. But on closer inspection, the notion rather quickly turns to nonsense.

Maurice Smith

Firstly, any kind of percentage argument needs to look at the other side of the equation – the percentage of the world population that produces that level of pollution. Canada produces 1.6 per cent of global emissions but we have just 0.5 per cent of the world’s population. In effect, we are emitting three times the world average on a per capita basis – the most democratic way to measure emissions. Keeping in mind we live in a cold climate, we are still carbon-emitting gluttons.

The worldwide average is 6.2 tonnes per person per year. Canada, even with our wealth of hydro and renewable energy potential, stands at 20.6 tonnes per person, second only to Australia and worse than the U.S. (Alberta and Saskatchewan are true standouts at 68 and 67 tonnes per capita respectively, more than 10 times the global average.) Even in absolute terms, despite Canada’s small population (37th overall) we are a Top 10 emitter.

Secondly, the “we are too small to matter” argument is meaningless because any other country can say the same thing. Even the worst offender, China, could say it produces less than 30 per cent of worldwide emissions, and if it somehow cut its emissions to zero the remaining 70 per cent would still put the planet on a collision course with climate disaster. So why, with per capita emissions about one-third of Canada’s, should it do anything either?

Similarly, every other country – about 180 of which produce less than Canada in both per capita and absolute terms – can make exactly the same argument. If you accept the logic, then no country would do anything.

Obviously, Canada acting alone won’t get us far off the path to climate disaster. But the vast majority of countries are moving – some faster than others – to reduce emissions. The EU met its Kyoto targets and is cutting further. The U.S., even with Donald Trump as incoming president, is closer to meeting its 2025 reduction target than Canada is to meeting ours. Even China is on course to peak its emissions about when Alberta does, assuming Alberta sticks to its new climate plan.

Finally, it might be useful to liken our small contribution to worldwide carbon pollution to the taxes we pay. If Canada’s contribution to carbon pollution seems small, your contribution to the billions Ottawa collects every year is miniscule in percentage terms. But that doesn’t make it irrelevant. Small numbers add up to big ones. And when even small contributors fail to carry their own weight, the entire system falls apart. Imagine using that argument with Revenue Canada, and see how far it would get in the real world, full of real math.

As a relatively heavy contributor and as a developed country with more wherewithal than most to make cuts over time, what Canada does can bolster or stymie momentum to bring down worldwide emissions. We all produce GHGs to varying levels, with varying percentages.

We can play with those figures to suggest pretty much whatever we want – lies, damn lies and percentages you might say. But like it or not, Canada is a major contributor and selectively pointing to seemingly small percentages isn’t going to get us off the hook.

Putting a price on carbon – the most economically efficient way to reduce those emissions – is a good place to start.

Maurice Smith is technology editor at Junewarren-Nickles Energy Group.

© 2016 Distributed by Troy Media

What do you think about this story?