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Canadians Have Highest Per Capita Footprint as Global Study Links Lifestyles to 1.5° Target

Update: We’re tracking a possible correction or clarification to this story, after a sharp-eyed reader caught and queried the reference to Canadians consuming 160 kilograms per capita of meat each year. While we look into the data more closely, please see the comment and reply at the bottom of this page, and feel free to join the discussion!—Ed.

To help prevent an unlivable world, people in rich countries must all drive less, eat less meat and inhabit smaller spaces, says a new report. And Canadians have the highest per capita consumption of all.

“We are in a planetary emergency and governments must act as such,” begins 1.5 Degree Lifestyles: Towards a Fair Consumption Space for All, released this week by the Hot or Cool Institute. The report focuses on the peril humanity now face, after decades of failing to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Its key message: Without sharp global cuts in consumption, we will overshoot 1.5°C of warming.  

At the same time, the authors stress, we must address the grotesque inequality that (literally) underwrites humanity’s current, entirely unsustainable development paradigm. 

“The emissions share of the 10% richest, highest-emitting individuals ranges from 36 to 49% of the global total, while that of the poorest, lowest-emitting 50% of the world’s population ranges from 7 to 15% of the total,” notes the report, citing 2020 data from the UN Environment Programme. The authors list a litany of inequalities among, within, and between countries: across race, gender, and generations; “of income, of health, of access to natural resources and public services”; and of the right to participate in global decision-making.

“Calls for climate justice are already growing loud,” the report states, and “these tensions will only get worse as competition heightens over diminishing resources and the remaining carbon budget to stay within sustainable limits.” 

The report introduces the principle of a “fair consumption space” as “an ecologically healthy perimeter that supports within it an equitable distribution of resources and opportunities for individuals and societies to fulfil their needs and achieve well-being.”

Critical to securing such a perimeter, say the authors, will be a global contraction in lifestyle carbon footprints, to 0.7 tCO2e [tonnes of CO2 equivalent] by 2050, with intermediary targets of 2.5 and 1.4 tCO2e by 2030 and 2040, respectively. “These targets are in line with the 1.5°C aspirational target of the Paris Agreement and for global peaking of GHG emissions as soon as possible without relying on the extensive use of negative emission technologies,” the authors explain.

Illustrating just how far those in developed nations are from living within ecological means is the report’s analysis of the lifestyle carbon footprints of 10 sample countries: Canada, Finland, United Kingdom, Japan, China, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil, India, and Indonesia, with particular focus on the “consumption domains” of food, housing, transport, goods, leisure, and services.

Estimates of current annual per capita lifestyle carbon footprints in the 10 countries reveal all of them exceeding the 0.7 tCO2e by 2050 target—but some far more than others.

Leading the pack on consumption are Canadians, at 14.2 tCO2e per capita, six times the footprint of Indonesians, at 2.2 tCO2e.

Digging into Canada’s wildly unsustainable carbon footprint, the report notes that the country’s citizens are serious meat eaters, consuming more of this high-emissions food source than any other nation studied. “The average Canadian consumes about 160 kilograms of meat per year,” the report states, four times the amount consumed by the average Japanese citizen, with “no discernible additional nutritional benefits for the Canadian.” 

Large living spaces and heavy use of non-renewable grid electricity (mostly natural gas) also contribute to Canada’s outsized carbon footprint, along with a reliance on large fossil-powered vehicles.  

“The modal share of cars varies a lot within high-income countries, from very high (70%) in Canada to moderate (46%) in Japan,” states the report.

By comparison, upper-income Finland, the United Kingdom, and Japan stand at 9.7, 8.5, and 8.1 tCO2e, respectively, while middle-income China, Turkey, South Africa, and Brazil are all markedly lower at 5.0, 4.9, 4.9, and 3.2. India outproduces Indonesia by 0.8 tCO2e, at 3.0. 

The report cites food, housing, and personal transport as the areas where lifestyle changes will have the greatest climate impact, accounting for about 79% of per capita carbon footprints. [Though many of those footprint reductions point to structural changes that are beyond anyone’s ability to control through individual lifestyle changes—Ed.]

Affirming the value of a primarily vegetarian diet, the report found that “the reduction required in the footprint for food by 2030 ranges from 39 to 68% for all countries besides India and Indonesia, where it is only 8%.”

The report also found a high correlation between income and carbon footprint, with an attachment to personal vehicles, greater use of air travel, and a passion for consumer goods. Canada shows “notably higher intensity for consumer goods and leisure related services.”

Critical to adoption of a “1.5 degree lifestyle” will be “absolute reductions in high-impact consumption” (plant-based diets); “modal shifts toward more sustainable options” (biking over driving); and efficiency improvements (smaller living spaces). And the authors stress that every category matters.

“With a diminishing carbon budget amid impacts of climate change already being felt, growing social tension exacerbated by vast inequities in society, and a short timeline for action, we need every tool in the box, including options that may seem politically challenging,” they write.

One of those tools will be the removal of “harmful consumption options” through the well-established process of “choice editing,” which traditionally uses public health and safety rules to guide individual choices (for example, “No, you can’t ride without a seat belt”). The approach will definitely step on some toes, the authors warn, yet many common practices—such as “fossil-fuelled private jets and mega yachts, excessive meat consumption, and customer loyalty programs that encourage unnecessary frequent flying and stays in wasteful hotels”—must end if consumer behaviour is to be changed without “victimizing low-income or sustainable groups that already have limited consumption and environmental impacts.” 

A second tool that could guide the world toward a lower-emission lifestyle is carbon rationing. That policy “can be complex and controversial” and there are as yet no clear mechanisms for implementing it. But “at the very least, thoughtful conversations among politicians and the public are needed, and so is some bold experimentation to implement such an approach,” the authors write.

The report also calls for “a sufficiency approach to the design of policy and practical solutions”, as a way to prioritize needs over wants. 

As an outsized emitter, Canada may have the most work to do. The authors note that“prioritizing meat-free diets, car-free private travelling, vehicle fuel efficiency improvements, and investments in renewable energy” would all yield “very significant” reductions in per capita carbon footprints for Canadians.

But “to get to the 2030 intermediary target of 2.5 tCO2e per capita,” the report states, Canada’s personal transport demand and energy consumption must decrease by at least a third, while the average living space per person “would need to drop from the current 58 square metres to at most 32 square metres.” Personal transport demand would have to fall by 31% (6,100 kilometres), while “a combination of changes in the diet and more efficient food production resulting in an 82% (1,900 kg CO2e) reduction from the current impact levels” will be necessary. 

Overall, the authors say, Canadians will have to reduce their overall lifestyle carbon footprint by 82% to meet the 2.5 tCO2e by 2030 target, and by 95% compared to today to hit  0.7 tCO2e by 2050.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Canadians Have Highest Per Capita Footprint as Global Study Links Lifestyles to 1.5° Target"

#1 Comment By Garry Atchgg On October 6, 2021 @ 1:17 PM

Regarding the article about Canadian carbon footprint being highest in the world.; while I agree, I find the claim that we average 160 kg of meat consumption pp py to verge on outlandish! This inflicts a massive credibility wound on the whole article. It means we consume about a pound of meat per day including vegetarians, children etc! That really requires a paragraph os context, maybe some peer reviewed citations.

#2 Comment By Mitchell Beer On October 6, 2021 @ 3:59 PM

Thanks very much for this, Garry. You make an excellent point, and we’re tracking down a clarification.

What we have so far is that Our World in Data puts Canada’s per capita meat consumption at 80 kilograms in 2017, the Daily Livestock Report has the U.S. at 101 kilos per capita last year — and as our writer on this story says, “no way in hell we outpace that”. The Hot or Cool Institute lumped beef and chicken together, with chicken accounting for about 51% of the total. But between the possible overlap in categories among different data sources, and the welcome trend toward less meat consumption in recent years, we think your basic point stands. The numbers call for further investigation, and we’re on it.

I’m adding a note to the top of the story to point site visitors to this exchange. Like any responsible publication, we *always* aim for 100% accuracy, but when there’s any question about a fact or figure, we also think it’s extremely important to open the conversation and show our work. Anyone else, please join the discussion with any data or evidence to add.

#3 Comment By Cymry Gomery On November 6, 2021 @ 10:18 PM

That figure of 160 kg (or about a pound a day of meat) does seem rather high, but perhaps they are taking into account food wasted–that is, meat that is discarded by the consumer, by restaurants, or even pre-consumer through animals dying in transport before they ever reach the slaughterhouse.

#4 Comment By Mitchell Beer On November 7, 2021 @ 3:00 PM

Oh, that’s a really good point, thank you! As you can see in the comments section, there’s been some skepticism from readers on this point. We queried the original source, did not hear back, and we’ve been too busy with our COP 26 coverage to pursue it further. But, yes — if food waste accounts for 30 to 50% of total production (take that number as approximate not literal, please, because we’re still immersed in the COP and I haven’t looked it up), the 160 kg begins to make more sense, and a supply chain-wide measure *is* more appropriate for this purpose than a calculation based on the average dinner plate.

#5 Comment By Karen On October 8, 2021 @ 10:51 AM

Taking careful consideration of my daily meat consumption over several decades, I dont believe I’ve ever consumed approximately 1 lb/day! I’m not a vegetarian, but for most of my life I’ve only eaten a few ounces of meat perhaps once daily every other day. I too challenge the accuracy of the articles statement.

#6 Comment By Rich K On October 8, 2021 @ 12:32 PM

Maybe the authors source was in pounds and it accidently got changed to kilograms somewhere along the line in the editing.

#7 Comment By Mitchell Beer On October 8, 2021 @ 7:09 PM

That’s interesting, Rich…could be. We’re still looking into this, and will post the update as soon as we can.