Richest 20% of Canadians have biggest carbon footprint

Marc Lee. (Photo: CCPA)

The richest 20% of Canadian income earners are responsible for almost double (1.8 times) the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of those in the lowest income group, says a new study released this week by in Ottawa by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), one of the focal points of Social Watch in that North American country.

The study, under the title “Who Occupies the Sky? The Distribution of GHGs in Canada”, by Marc Lee, finds household carbon footprints increase with income and concludes that GHG reduction policies must take inequality into consideration.

“It is important to develop an approach to reduce emissions that does not have an unequal impact on families with lower incomes, who have lower emissions to begin with,” says Lee, a CCPA Senior Economist. “Those with higher incomes are able to reduce the emissions —by reducing air travel and investing in home energy efficiency—more easily than low-income families, without affecting their basic needs.”

The study, based on personal spending data for 2009 from Statistics Canada, notes that inequality in carbon emissions is more extreme at the very top of the income distribution. Per capita emissions would be even higher for the richest Canadians and correspondingly lower for those with the lowest incomes.

“Whenever I go into policy discussions — federal, provincially, municipally — it’s typically middle-class professionals making policy for the middle class, and we don’t have a lot of consideration of how this plays out for really low-income households or how it plays out for really high-income households,” said Lee, according to Reuters news agency.

Based on modeling of the province of British Columbia’s carbon tax, the top 1% of households had emissions three times the average, and almost six times the emissions of households in the bottom decile. Emissions of the top 1% were also almost double those of the next 4% of households.

Lee explained that higher-income people tend to have more of an impact on the environment both directly and indirectly.

For example, higher-income earners are more likely to have one or more vehicles that use fuel. As well, they probably have bigger homes that take more energy to heat or air-condition.

Indirectly, Lee said, those earning more money will generally buy more products and services, most of which result in some ecological footprint in their creation.

“If you’re bringing in an across-the-board policy like a carbon tax, then you need to think about how that plays out for different income groups,” he said.

“If climate policies are going to be effective, they need to be fair,” Lee concludes. “That means high-income Canadians should bear the greater burden of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

More information:
“Who Occupies the Sky?” (in English and in PDF format):

This report is based on data from the following sources:
Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives:
CBC News:
National Post:
Peace, Earth & Justice News: