When Two Percent is Too Much

Greenhouse gas emitters like Canada really do matter.

The Harper regime regularly defended their climate policies by pointing out that Canada contributes “less than two percent” to global greenhouse gas emissions. The assertion was made regularly in parliament (see here, here, here and here) and in public (here and here). Notably, former Environment Minister Peter Kent used the line in defending Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol. The defence bothers me not because it is false (it is, in fact, true), but because of the implication that two percent is somehow unimportant.

Global greenhouse gas emissions breakdown. Source: Canada’s Emissions Trends 2014.
Global greenhouse gas emissions breakdown. Source: Canada’s Emissions Trends 2014.

Before explaining why two percent matters, let’s recall the Harper regime’s relentless promotion of the oil sands in context: Unconventional oil extraction (including oilsands) accounts for about two percent of GDP, and employment in the energy sector represents just under two percent of all jobs in Canada. The Harper regime didn’t consider these economic contributions to be insignificant, and should not have implied anything of the sort for Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Let’s look at the data. Environment Canada’s Emissions Trends 2014 provides a breakdown of global emissions, reproduced here in Table 1.

Table 1: Global greenhouse gas emissions (2011), from Environment Canada’s Emissions Trends 2014.
No. Country Emissions Fraction
1 China 24.1%
2 USA 14.9%
3 EU 10.3%
4 India 5.7%
5 Russia 5.4%
6 Japan 3.0%
7 Brazil 2.6%
8 Indonesia 1.9%
9 Canada 1.6%
Iran 1.6%
Mexico 1.6%
Others 27.2%

The data reveal that Canada is a top 10 emitter of greenhouse gases. What’s more, countries that contribute 2% or less to the problem account for 33.9% of global emissions. Small emitters form far and away the largest emissions block: 40% larger than China, 128% larger than the USA, and 229% larger than the EU.

But the situation is more stark than EC’s report seems to suggest. The source for these data is the CAIT database, and the database provides numbers for individual EU countries. Table 2 gives the results with EU countries treated independently. The data reveal that countries contributing 2% or less to emissions account for 44.4% of the whole. Small emitters constitute a massive emissions block.

Table 2: Global greenhouse gas emissions (2012), from the CAIT database.
No. Country Emissions Fraction
1 China 24.5%
2 USA 13.9%
3 India 6.7%
4 Russia 5.2%
5 Japan 3.0%
6 Brazil 2.3%
7 Germany 2.0%
8 Indonesia 1.7%
9 Mexico 1.6%
Iran 1.6%
Canada 1.6%
Others 35.9%

In this context, large emitters like China and the USA could have asserted that their own emissions reductions mean little without countries like Canada doing their fair share. Canada’s abandonment of the Kyoto protocol provided cover for countries outside of the top ten to do less. The cost of inaction to the global economy will be an enduring legacy of the Harper regime.

Let’s keep the following in mind when we move on to the implementation stage of the Paris Agreement: Greenhouse gas emitters like Canada really do matter. If we are going to solve the climate change problem, then every country must do its part.