Canadians are among the world's worst carbon emitters. Here's what we can do about it

A new report from a Berlin-based think tank shows Canada is trailing behind other wealthy countries when it comes to cutting carbon emissions, but it outlines lifestyle changes that could help the world meet the 1.5 degree warming limit.

Berlin-based think tank says by 2050 average Canadian footprint must be cut by 95%

A blazing orange sun glows through clouds in the sky.
A UN panel issued a dire warning this year that without a radical reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the world is dangerously close to runaway warming. Per-capita, Canada has among the highest emissions in the world. (Edmund O'Connor/Shutterstock)

A new report from a Berlin-based think tank shows Canada is trailing behind other wealthy countries when it comes to cutting carbon emissions, and outlines concrete steps that individuals, governments, and businesses can take to help the world limit warming to the 1.5 C goal set by the Paris Agreement. 

The report, 1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Towards A Fair Consumption Space for All, was produced by the Hot or Cool Institute, and compares 10 countries selected to represent a range of income-levels — Canada, Finland, the United Kingdom, Japan, China, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil, India, and Indonesia. 

Out of the countries studied, Canada had the worst per-capita record by far. 

WATCH Canadians among world's worst carbon emitters, report finds

Canadians among world’s worst carbon emitters, report finds

2 years ago
Duration 3:09
A study published by a Berlin think-tank says Canadians must cut their carbon footprints by 95 per cent to help the world limit global warming to the 1.5 C goal set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. Lewis Akenji, managing director of the Hot or Cool Institute and lead author of the study says it can’t be up to Canadians alone, and the federal government must play a role.

(Australia and the United States, which are also among the world's highest per-capita emitters, were not included in the report.)

The analysis compared the average per-capita carbon emissions of people in each of those countries, a metric the authors called "average lifestyle carbon footprints." The report focuses on key domains where tangible lifestyle changes could make a significant difference, including food, housing and personal transportation. 

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The average person in Canada produces an equivalent of 14.2 tonnes of CO2 as of 2019, according to the findings. By comparison, the average per-capita footprint in Finland is 9.7 tonnes and in the United Kingdom it's 8.5 tonnes. 

"I do think the atmosphere in Canada provides a real opportunity for us asking for change," said lead author Lewis Akenji, who is also the managing director of the Hot or Cool Institute.

Akenji said the idea was to link the Paris Agreement targets to tangible lifestyle changes that can make a difference, in light of this year's "code red" report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

'Not just the individual': Need for better infrastructure

If Canada is going to play its part, he said, the country will need to cut per-capita carbon emissions by 82 per cent in the next decade, and by 95 per cent by 2050.

Eating meat, using fossil fuel cars, flying, and living in large houses with high energy consumption are all highlighted in the report as lifestyle choices that contribute to larger carbon footprints. 

"There is no universal sustainable lifestyle," the report states. "If one must use a car, then an electric car in Iceland might make sense, where 100 per cent of electricity comes from renewables, but not in India where electricity is primarily generated from coal."

While the cuts required might sound drastic, it is possible according to Madhur Anand, a professor in the school of environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph and director of the Guelph Institute for Environmental Research.

"We can make progress really quickly. I would look at it from that perspective, rather than think that it's a problem that's too big to solve," Anand said.

Many European countries, such as Germany and the United Kingdom, started investing in technology to cut carbon emissions long before Canada, but experts say there is still time to catch up. 

"It is not just the individual that has to change," Akenji said. "Policies need to come into place, businesses need to come on board with viable products that are sustainable." 

"You cannot have citizens just taking action and the government waiting for citizens to change their lifestyles. Canada does not have that luxury."

A photo shows commuters stuck in a traffic jam in Laval, Que. While citizens can reduce their carbon footprint by buying electric cars or opting to bike, train or bus, experts say the government also needs to provide reliable, efficient public transit options for all. (Stéphane Grégoire/Radio-Canada)

Fewer fossil-fuel cars, less meat

The concept behind the 1.5 Degree Lifestyles report was to take the target of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels and, drawing on modelling from the IPCC, establish an equitable target carbon footprint for individuals — one that is the same no matter where a person lives in the world, rich or poor.

The number to shoot for is 0.7 tonnes of CO2 per capita each year by 2050, according to the report's findings. In order to be on track to hit that mark, the average should be 2.5 tonnes per person by 2030. 

Preventing the runaway global warming and extreme weather events predicted in the IPCC's latest modeling will require changing how we get around, how we heat and cool our homes, and what we eat, according to the Berlin-based research. 

Much of the responsibility lies with countries like Canada, where the report found that per-capita consumption emissions are six times higher than India's, which average to 2.2 tonnes per person annually. 

Canadians' love for meat and dairy were found to be significant contributors to carbon footprints, partly due to the popularity of cheese and beef, which are carbon-intensive foods.

Keeping houses heated is another major factor. While Canadians can't help that they have long, cold winters, their reliance on natural gas as an energy source combined with large living spaces makes household footprints larger, according to the report.

By comparison, in a lower-middle income country like India, living spaces are smaller and a significant portion of the population lives in poverty; as a result, the overall energy demand is quite low per person due to basic living conditions and a warmer climate. That, combined with the popularity of vegetarianism keeps carbon footprints comparatively low, with most of the food consumed being plant-based and low-impact. 

Anand recently published a paper about how global inequity can actually exacerbate climate change, due to conflict. 

"We know there's a huge inequity problem in terms of climate change both on the side of emissions but also on the side of impacts," she said.

"We need to see richer countries helping poorer countries. There's no other way around it."

Even compared to wealthier countries, Canada has a lot of work to do. 

Take Japan for example, where people are far less dependent on cars thanks to reliable, efficient public transit systems. 

For the average Japanese person, transport contributes 1,970 kg CO₂e to their carbon footprint. For the average Canadian, it's more than double that, at 5,000 kg CO₂e.

"By far the biggest savings Canadians can make in terms of changes are to move from private car use to shared mobility systems," Akenji said. 

"The government needs to make sure that these [shared transit] options are available … that they are efficient [and] they are regular so that people can depend on them to go to work or to go visit family, and also that they are clean and safe."

According to the 1.5-Degree Lifestyles report, meat and dairy products are a major contributor to footprints especially in high-income countries, such as Canada. (CBC/1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Towards A Fair Consumption Space for All)

Diet is another factor and if Canadians want to lower their footprints, the report suggests eating less meat. Meat products make up for 61 per cent of the average Canadian's food carbon footprint of 2,270 kg of CO₂e per year. 

Tom Gunton, founding director of the resource and environmental planning program at Simon Fraser University, said he believes there is momentum in Canada for change.

"It's all do-able. We just have to roll up our sleeves and get at it," he said. 

"The bad news is that we have a very poor record in Canada. We have very high emissions compared to any of the wealthy countries in the world. The good news is that we are actually starting to develop plans to achieve these reductions."

Work to do, says government

Canada has committed to cutting emissions by 40 to 45 per cent by 2030 and transitioning to net-zero emissions by 2050.

Gunton said what's lacking is a plan that firmly outlines how those targets will be reached, especially while the energy sector continues to rely on oil and gas.

"We're moving in the opposite direction and that's probably our biggest gap right now. We need to eliminate all the subsidies in the oil and gas sector and use that money for investing in renewables or helping transitions in that sector for workers."

With the UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, fast approaching, the office for the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada acknowledged there is work to do.

Press secretary Joanna Sivasankaran said that, while Canada is responsible for less than two per cent of the total global greenhouse gas emissions, it's true the country is one of the highest per-capita emitters in the world.

"The Government of Canada has a real and serious plan to tackle climate change by cutting pollution from every sector of the economy and every region of the country, including measures to cut emissions from transportation, homes and buildings, and agriculture," Sivasankaran said. 

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