The Faulty Logic Behind the Argument That Canada’s Emissions Are a ‘Drop in the Bucket’

At the premiers’ climate summit this week, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall brought up a statistic that has received a fair amount of attention lately: Canada’s emissions account for fewer than two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

He’s not wrong, but used as an argument against doing our part to combat climate change, his point does contain some flawed logic.

“Showing leadership matters, signals matter, examples matter, but the numbers are the numbers,” Wall said.

Essentially, Wall appears to be suggesting that because no single action by itself will solve the problem, we shouldn’t take that single action.

Applying this logic to other situations reveals just how faulty it is.

“Canada accounted for less than two per cent of the allied war effort in the Second World War but our leadership certainly made a difference,” says Tzeporah Berman, adjunct professor in the faculty of environmental studies at York University.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne rejected Wall’s argument.

“Yes, we are a small country in terms of our population and absolute emissions, but we are heavy emitters per capita and that actually gives us more of a responsibility to innovate and create technology that allow us to deal with the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.

recent poll showed that most Canadians side with Wynne over Wall. Fifty-eight per cent of Canadians disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are justified because they represent only a small portion of the global total. Only 17 per cent agreed with that sentiment.

So, let’s get clear about how Canada’s emissions fit into the global climate context and how our country has been performing so far.

Both on an absolute basis and on a per capita basis, Canada is a very significant polluter. The World Bank lists Canada in the top 15 emitters of carbon dioxide per capita. And, when taking into account emissions from land use and forestry, the World Resources Institute ranks Canada as the highest per capita polluter in the world.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, using International Energy Agency data, ranks Canada ninth when it comes to the country’s global share of carbon emissions.

The oilsands are the fastest growing source of emissions in Canada even though Alberta is home to only 11 per cent of the population.

As the Pembina Institute puts it, if Alberta were a country it would have the highest per capita emissions in the world.

What’s more, Environment Canada projects oilsands emissions will more than double over the next decade, growing from 48 megatonnes in 2010 to 104 megatonnes in 2020.

In this figure the National Energy Board compares several oilsands’ production forecasts, all of which show significant growth in the resource continuing to 2035.

That growth is completely at odds with meeting our climate targets. In fact, Alberta’s growth in emissions is actually un-doing the climate gains made in other provinces, such as Ontario’s phase-out of coal powered energy plants.

That’s been allowed to happen because despite eight solid years of promises, Canada still has no national regulations on greenhouse gas emissions.

Last December, during the UN climate summit in Lima, Peru, Stephen Harper made headlines for saying it would be “crazy” to regulate the oil and gas sector. Canada regularly ranks dead last out of developed nations on the climate file.

Under the Copenhagen Accord, Canada committed to reducing its emissions 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 but, according to Environment Canada, we are nowhere near meeting that target.

The importance of this can’t really be overstated.

This is why: Canada has subscribed to the target of limiting the world’s temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius. Each country’s contributions to that target translate into our ability to limit the worst impacts of climate change. Canada’s failure to meets its own target threatens this international goal that other countries are furiously working towards.

The debate about climate change isn’t merely a moral one. The cost of failing to act will almost certainly outweigh the costs of acting. Think: floods, heat waves, adaptation efforts, rising sea levels, water scarcity, lower crop yields and wildfires.

Economic research by experts like Yale’s William Nordhaus demonstrates that waiting to act on climate will cost a lot — like in the trillions-of-dollars a lot.

All of that is to say that Canada’s poor-sport attitude on climate change amounts to a major ‘tragedy of the commons’ outcome. Basically, if everyone shrugs off their individual responsibilities, we’re all going to suffer.

Image Credit: Kris Krug

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