Per capita emissions. What does it really mean?

July 1, 2019
Denise Mullen

There is much talk about ‘climate emergency’ these days, with substantial blame aimed at industry for increasing global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Yes, global business activities, large and small, are contributors to overall emissions of heat trapping GHGs. However, two things rarely are mentioned — the role of consumers and the impact of global population growth. Why is this important? Because arguments for emissions reductions require a turn around of the mirror.

The goods and services supporting our lifestyles and standard of living would not exist unless there were willing consumers to purchase them. From the exact industries we sometimes suggest we don’t want in our backyard, we happily import products to satisfy local consumers’ needs and wants. All this does is shift the generation of production GHG emissions. Consumption emissions may be higher but are hidden since the international accounting system used in the broad domain of climate policy focuses on production. The result is a skewed debate and poorly thought out policies for reducing GHG emissions.

As for population growth, on a basic level there is close to a 1:1 relationship between emissions and the number of people on the planet. The laws of thermodynamics do apply. Every living being is converting energy in some form to do work. And, as people aspire to a standard of living that is more than subsistence, emissions tend to rise. It is straightforward, if sobering.

So, let’s look at British Columbia’s per capita emissions. In 2007, B.C. business and individuals collectively emitted ~63.6 mega tonnes (MT) of CO2e. In 2016, the latest year for data, our emissions were very slightly less, at 62.3 MT CO2e. Assume for the moment that 2016 levels prevail in future, even though this is not likely the case, in part because of population and economic growth. As for per capita emissions and putting challenges around measurements aside,[1]
the math is simple. Divide total emissions by total population. For B.C., it turns out that means we emit about 13 tonnes/person.

What does this really mean? Table 1 shows total British Columbia emissions in relation to the current legislated greenhouse gas reduction targets. Blue columns represent “actuals”; orange bars are the targets[2]. The red line is what matters for individuals. The changes to lifestyles and the structure of our economy are dramatic if B.C. is to meet the indicated 2050 outcomes.

For the average person, emissions from food and household operations already use up 55% of the 2030 per capita target amount.[3],[4]
Assuming marginal changes to how we eat and run our households, by 2040 these two items alone account for about 90% of the per capita budget. By 2050, given a 1.85 tonne per person number and absent a dramatic change to lifestyles, eating and household emissions amount to almost double the target the province says it wants to achieve. Importantly, none of these per person amounts include transportation emissions, which on average add up to 5.7 tonnes per year per person,[5]
nor do they include air travel for work or holidays.[6]

Put another way, imagine that Figure 1 is a series of dinner plates. Right now, you consume from the biggest circle. But by 2050, you can only consume the amount in the smallest circle. This is the magnitude of the change required. Our GHG reduction targets largely ignore the challenges and the magnitude of the individual choices that lie ahead.


[3] The carbon footprint of 5 diets compared:

[4] Climate Action Now,

[5] The US EPA estimates the average vehicle emission of 4.6 tonnes per year from a typical passenger vehicle. Data from B.C. suggest this is closer to 7 tonnes since 40% of BC emission are from vehicles (25 MT CO2e) and of that 80% is personal transportation (~20 MT CO2e) or 6.87 tonne per passenger vehicle per year. The average with the EPA figure is 5.7 tonnes per vehicle.

[6] Trips to Cancun = 0.70 tonnes per person; Toronto = 0.40 tonnes per person; Ottawa = 0.50 tonnes per person; London UK (a proxy for trips to Europe) = 1.3 tonnes per person

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