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Who Occupies the Sky?

November 15, 2011

2-minute read

CCPA released a new report today by myself and Amanda Card that makes the links between inequality and carbon footprints. We look at the distribution of greenhouse gas emissions for Canada, building on an analysis of BC emissions. While it was not planned this way, the analysis is timely given the Occupy movement's focus on surging inequality and movements for climate justice, manifested recently in the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline.

The new report uses household expenditure data to model direct emissions from households (transportation and home energy use), and we also model indirect emissions that are embedded in the other consumption goods we purchase. After adjusting for family size, we find that the footprint of top quintile (15.5 tonnes per person) was almost double that of the bottom quintile (8.6 tonnes per person).

Unfortunately, data are not available for smaller groupings, and the footprint of the top 1% is going to be much higher than the average for the top decile. Based on SPSD/M modeling for BC's carbon tax the top 1% of households had emissions three times the average, and almost six times that of the bottom. These are unadjusted for family size, but interestingly the top 1% had emissions almost double those of the next 4%.

The report also estimates per capita emissions by province to show the regional variation. The big difference, as far as direct emissions go, arises from source of electricity. The big coal-burning provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have well above average emissions per person as a result.

We then review some conceptions of justice and model emission reductions for Canada for two justice principles – (A) an across the board percentage reduction, and (B) reducing emissions to an equal per capita amount – and two emission reduction scenarios – the current Government of Canada target (17% reduction below 2005 levels by 2020), and more ambitious target consistent with keeping global temperature increase below the critical 2 degree Celsius threshold (25% reduction below 1990 levels by 2020).

For the government-set target (and as an aside, given the compulsion to export tar sands by the Harper government, it is yet another target we will fail to meet) an across the board reduction would still leave the top quintile with average emissions in 2020 that are larger than the CURRENT emissions of the bottom 40%. Shifting to equal per capita emissions in 2020, on the other hand, mean that the emissions of the bottom quintile could actually grow somewhat.

For the more aggressive target, the bottom quintile would have to reduce emissions by 12%, while the top quintile would have reduce them by more than half (51%). This makes sense because it is the households with the highest incomes that are responsible for more emissions in the first place and have greater capacity to reduce emissions by cutting luxury consumption or making investments in energy efficiency. The poorest have the least capacity to reduce emissions or make the upfront investments needed to get ahead of the curve.

Bottom line: inequality matters when it comes to carbon footprints. This means across the board policies like a carbon tax need to have compensating mechanisms to ensure they do not adversely affect the poorest households who have the least responsibility for causing the mess we are in. Too often policy-making is middle-class professionals making policy for the middle class, and this risks ignoring who needs to do the heavy lifting to reduce our collective carbon footprint.

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