The rhetoric on climate change leadership needs to change

Overblown claims and ever more ambitious targets for dealing with climate change won't help get us to the finish line without action

Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna speaks at Canada 20/20 in Ottawa November 20, 2015. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna speaks at Canada 20/20 in Ottawa November 20, 2015. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Climate change and reducing greenhouse gases (GHGs) are big news in Canada these days. Alberta recently announced its new plan. The Prime Minister and premiers met publicly with climate scientists and then went to Paris to make a big splash at the COP21 climate change summit. All this attention is to be welcomed by those of us who want to raise awareness about the need to take action against climate change.

Predictably, however, politicians have gone quickly to the “leadership” word to describe their plans, and that’s the problem. Because the inconvenient truth is that the gap between rhetoric and reality has never been wider. Canada is not a leader in the fight against climate change. At best, we are struggling to stay even with the laggards in the climate change marathon. A clear-eyed look at the data on GHG emissions will prove the point.

Before looking at the data, we need to define leadership in the fight against climate change. Being in the lead suggests we are out in front in getting to the level that scientists say we need to stabilize the rise in global temperatures at two degrees Celsius—in the neighbourhood of two tonnes of GHG emissions per capita by 2050. We would measure leadership on this standard by comparing the level of our per capita emissions to those of other countries.

A second way to show leadership would be by reducing our emissions from past levels. Comparing the change in our emissions to changes in other countries would be the measure to focus on.

Table 1 shows the levels of emissions per capita for 2012 (most recent worldwide data available) for selected countries. Among the top 15 global emitters representing 70 per cent of the world’s total emissions, Canada ranks second-worst at 20.1 tonnes per capita. China, the world’s largest emitter in absolute terms, stands at 8.1 tonnes per capita. Collectively, the EU has emissions of 8.8 tonnes per capita. Based on these facts, its pretty hard to argue that Canada is leading the way in getting to the two-tonne-per-capita level needed by 2050.

Table 1: Emissions per capita (2012) for selected countries

Country Tonnes of CO2e per capita Total GHG emissions (Mt) Share of world emissions
Australia 28.5 648 1.40%
Canada 20.1 699 1.60%
United States 19.9 6,235 13.90%
Russia 16.2 2,322 5.20%
South Korea 13.9 693 1.50%
Germany 11 887 2.00%
Japan 10.5 1,345 3.00%
Iran 9.4 715 1.60%
Europe (28) 8.8 4,399 9.80%
UK 8.7 553 1.20%
China 8.1 10,975 24.50%
Mexico 6 724 1.60%
Brazil 5.1 1,013 2.30%
Indonesia 3.1 761 1.70%
India 2.4 3,014 6.70%

Source: World Resources Institute

Table 2 shows the changes in emissions per capita since 1990, the base year for our Kyoto pledge (since repudiated in 2012). No leadership by Canada in evidence here. Relative to 1990, countries like the U.K., Germany and France are far ahead of us.

Table 2: Changes in emissions per capita

Country 2012 - 1990
Canada -12%
United States -16%
Australia 1%
Japan 9%
UK -33%
France -19%
Germany -25%

Source: World Resources Institute

Our domestic climate change rhetoric is equally overblown. Table 3 shows current total and per capita levels of emissions by province. It makes little sense to argue that Alberta is a leader in the fight against climate change. Of the big Canadian emitters, Quebec, Ontario and B.C. are far in the lead in the race to reduce emissions.

Table 3: Current emissions per capita by province

Province Total megatonnes, Co2e (2005) Total megatonnes, Co2e (2012) Per capita, tonnes CO2e (2005) Per capita, tonnes CO2e (2012)
NL 10 9 19.2 16.6
PE 2 2 15.6 13.4
NS 23 19 24.6 20.1
NB 20 16 26.9 21.7
QC 86 78 11.3 9.7
ON 207 167 16.5 12.5
MB 21 21 17.8 16.9
SK 71 75 71.6 68.8
AB 232 249 69.8 64
BC 62 60 14.8 13.2
Territories 2 2 23 17.9
CANADA 736 699 22.8 20.1

Source: Canada’s Emissions Trends 2014

As for ambition, Table 4 shows the provinces’ 2020 targets for per capita emissions. Alberta has no absolute target, but provided a projection in their recently announced plan. Once again, Quebec, Ontario and B.C. are far in the lead in their ambition to further reduce emissions.

Table 4: Provincial targets for 2020

Province Absolute target (megatonnes CO2e) Per capita target (tonnes CO2e)
NL 8.8 17
PE 1.8 12
NS 18.2 19.1
NB 14.9 19.4
QC 71.8 8
ON 154.7 10.7
MB 17.6 13
SK 55.5 47.4
AB 277 60
BC 43.5 8.7
Territories 2.3 19
Sum of provincial targets* 666 17.7

Source: Authors’ calculations, provincial targets and population projections by Statistics Canada
* Canada set a national 2020 target of 611 megatonnes based on the data from the 2014 Emissions Trends.

The numbers don’t lie. Canada has been a laggard, not a leader, in the fight against climate change. We have a long way to go to catch up to the pack. That said, we are finally back in the race and that is a very good thing. However, we should be under no illusion—it’s all hard work from here.

What does this mean as our political leaders meet in Paris to discuss climate change with the rest of the world? Canada should be ambitious in its plans and humble in its claims. Overblown claims and ever-more ambitious targets won’t help get us to the finish line. Actions that lead to results, not rhetoric, are what we need now.


Paul Boothe is the Director and Felix-A. Boudreault is a Fellow of the Lawrence National Centre for Policy and Management at Western University’s Ivey Business School.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.