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The “Individual” in the Context of Global Emissions

by | Jun 11, 2019

A closer look at global GHG accounting from a Canadian perspective.

A BBC article I recently read ”took stock” of where we are in the progression of climate change [1]. One visual stood out to me which showed the top ten global emitters as a percentage of the country’s contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (see below). This is not the first time I have seen a chart like this, nor did the results surprise me; China leading the way at 26.6%, followed by the US at 13.1%, and Canada somewhere near the bottom at 1.6% of total global emissions.

In Canada, there currently is considerable debate around climate policy; several provinces have launched court challenges against the federal backstop program (read ClimeCo’s News Hit on the federal backstop for background information on the program). In these debates, the statistic for Canada has been cited repeatedly. It commonly raises the question, “Why should Canada “do more” when it contributes so little to global emissions?”

The 1.6% number lends itself to the conclusion that “we” are not the real problem and efforts to reduce Canada’s emissions may not even make a small dent in total global emissions. However, recent reflections on some of my own lifestyle choices and the environmental impact of those choices made me stop and ask myself whether this conclusion is reasonable and if this 1.6% number is representative of how the world works. In the words of Peter Stockland, which he wrote in an opinion article for JWN Energy, “because if the point of citing any particular number is not its accuracy, but its ease of being remembered by those one seeks to persuade about species extinction, then we’re simply dealing with the grim science of cynical political marketing [2].”

Chart courtesy of BBC News

There is misalignment between reported emissions and their true representative impact because methods utilized to account and report national-level emissions do not capture emissions associated with imported consumer products; GHG accounting begins and ends at national borders. Several Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, Canada included, have outsourced much of their GHG intensive industries. Therefore, when a national inventory exercise is completed, the emissions associated with the manufacturing and shipping of those products are not captured or reported.

Canadians enjoy a wonderfully high standard of living, due in part to having access to a variety of low-cost products imported from countries where goods can be manufactured more economically. Per Statistics Canada, Canada imports more than it exports; In March of 2019, reported that Canada’s purchases of imported consumer goods reached a record $10.9 billion.  So, the question then becomes: Is it fair to use a number, like 1.6%, that may not accurately represent the true impact of our way of life as the standard for changing it?

National versus global GHG accounting is an ever more important issue and one of the challenges that we face as we come closer to negotiating the details in Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, and as countries finalize or work towards achieving their National Determined Contributions (NDC’s). If we are to begin global trading of emissions reductions in the form of internationally transferred mitigation outcomes (ITMO’s), then we need to ensure that accurate and fair global GHG accounting and reporting mechanisms are in place. This is a hard exercise, the solutions of which are extremely complex. However, it is also a very worthy exercise; approximately half of all NDC’s that have been submitted indicate a preference or intention to use international market-based mechanisms (i.e. emissions trading) to meet their reductions (see IETA, April 2019). 

We need to reflect on how we are representing the various contributors to climate change and how optics really matter in the conversation. Sometimes the most accurate answer to a problem is not the most popular – which is to say that we all really need to change our consumer habits to make a difference in global emissions; emissions are ultimately driven by consumerism. This is a huge challenge, to say the least; personally, I enjoy living in a single detached home, our family drives two large gasoline vehicles, we shop at big box stores and usually don’t pay particular attention to where a product is from when we make a purchasing decision, we buy single-use items for birthday parties and other occasions, we throw away food that we have not consumed before the use-by date, and we go for coffee and use single-use cups, even while we have a drawer full of re-usable mugs at home. I don’t think our experience differs significantly from other Canadians. It is hard to change behavior. While, ideally, production may one day be decoupled from GHG emissions, we are not there yet.

On the other hand, my family is trying hard to be better stewards of the environment.  We try to turn off the lights when we leave a room, try to remember to use reusable grocery bags, participate in our city’s composting and recycling programs, try to make our home more energy efficient, try to eat less meat, and opt to offset our emissions when presented the choice. At the end of the day, will these small behavior changes be enough to offset our other consumer habits? Are these small behavior changes just stepping-stones to the bigger, more transformative changes that are being called for?

I am proud to say that as an employee of ClimeCo, my own personal carbon footprint is mitigated as part of a company-wide initiative. I truly believe that offsetting our personal emissions is one way that we can help to drive those transformative changes.  An offset purchase is like an investment in a clean energy or emission reduction project; the more people that invest, the more projects that can be collectively built. Historically, there have been significant barriers that have prevented individuals from participating in the offset market in a meaningful way, but technological advances (i.e. blockchain) are making it ever more likely that one day soon, the emissions associated with every purchase we make can be mitigated at the point of sale.  

So, what is the solution for more representative national GHG accounting and reporting? How do we get to a number that accurately represents and captures all the emissions that the people of a nation actually generate through their lifestyle choices? Honestly, I don’t think our accounting methods are the problem. Instead of changing them, we need to remove the finger pointing from the climate change debate and look inwards to hold ourselves accountable – because, after all, we are all in this together.



About the Author

Jessica Campbell has significant experience with policy developers and has gained valuable expertise in provincial (AB) climate change policy as well as in landfill and manure diversion/anaerobic digestion (biogas, RNG) offset protocols. She holds a Master of Science with a specialization in sustainable energy development (SEDV) from the University of Calgary. Jess is a registered environmental professional in training (EPt) with ECO Canada.