By: Mathew Scammell

Measuring total emissions without taking into account population is inaccurate

There are several ways to measure a society’s contributions to the carbon emissions currently accumulating in Earth’s atmosphere. Misrepresenting the data can cause illusions regarding who should bear the brunt of responsibility for the climate crisis. In recent years, a growing number of voices in Canada have been attempting to lay blame on the country of China, using distorted measurements to support their arguments.

One of the more common measurements being promoted in Canada (and the United States) is total annual emissions. This snapshot is an incomplete tool for two reasons: it does not factor in a society’s population and it does not account for the atmospheric lifetime of carbon dioxide.

Here’s some important context: Manitoba often touts itself as a ‘green’ province operating with “97% non-emitting electricity.” Despite electricity being produced by a renewable resource, most energy consumed in Manitoba is done so by burning fossil fuels (73%) to heat buildings and transport goods and people. This heavy reliance on fossil fuels means that Manitoba’s carbon footprint is much higher when factoring in its relatively small population, which is how we get to the measurement of per capita emissions.

Per capita essentially means per person. This is a more accurate number to use when evaluating a region’s emissions because it takes overall population into account. According to the World Bank, Canada is ranked as ninth in the world when using emissions per capita. The United States is 10th, and China is 20th.   

The Manitoba Government recently released “Manitoba’s Energy Roadmap” which makes a direct comparison between the emissions from our province and the country of China. This comparison is irrelevant not only because Manitoba is not a country, but because China has a population that is over 1,000 times higher than Manitoba’s. To make this comparison even more inappropriate, Manitoba’s per capita emissions are calculated at “15.7 tonnes of CO2e” (e = equivalent) according to the Government of Canada, whereas China’s are calculated by the World Bank to be 7.8 tonnes per person – roughly half of Manitoba’s! This is how numbers can be skewed in order to make yourself look better, despite being factually worse.

The atmospheric lifetime of carbon dioxide refers to the long period of time that carbon dioxide spends in the atmosphere. Though some climate deniers may point to the fact that CO2 molecules only spend around 5 years in the atmosphere, this fact ignores the reality that these are merely swapping spots with molecules from the ocean. It is the excess amount remaining in the atmosphere that is causing global temperatures to rise, since the ocean is not as quick at absorbing the CO2 as we humans are at putting it into the atmosphere (we’ll have to address the issue of ocean acidification another time). This is why CO2 is said to have an atmospheric lifetime of around several hundred years, much longer than we can afford to wait for natural cycles to balance out.

This brings us to the measurement of historical emissions

Historical emissions are important to consider when evaluating progress because the amount of CO2 emitted annually is cumulative and does not dissipate within a short timeframe. The warming we are currently experiencing in 2023 is not due to emissions from 5, 10, or even 20 years ago. The emissions from recent years are most certainly adding to the problem, but if we look at the long-term, the big picture, then who is responsible?

According to Carbon Brief, the United States is responsible for about 20% of all CO2 emitted from 1850-2021, with China coming in second at 11%. Using this specific measurement, Canada’s national responsibility for causing climate change ranks it at 10th in the world, or about 2.6%. Though Canada isn’t ranked as high on the list as the per capita measurement, the pointing of fingers at who is to blame for climate change shouldn’t be directed at China, but rather our next door neighbour – the United States.

Where does that leave us?

Though it can be used in tandem with other measurements to represent a more complete picture, total annual emissions is not the best measurement to use when calculating a region’s carbon footprint. True evaluations need to consider per capita and historical emissions as well.

For the Manitoba Government to compare our province with China is not only absurd but likely also a racist dog-whistle. There has been a long history of anti-Chinese sentiments in Canada and these need to be called out when ridiculous assertions are made publicly by elected officials.

Manitoba has a long way to go before our energy is zero-emitting, but it’s very possible to do.

Solutions to feed, transport, and shelter ourselves affordably without the use of fossil fuels exist, and there’s no reason why Manitoba should be exempt from implementing these solutions. 

You can learn more about these solutions by visiting the Manitoba Climate Action Team website and get involved by checking out the Consider Climate, Manitoba campaign. 

Mathew Scammell holds degrees from the University of Manitoba in Environmental Science and Global Political Economy. He is a member of Manitoba’s Climate Action Team, representing Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition.