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Canada's Rich Stomp the Planet

Their eco-footprint is more than double nation's poor: study.

By Tom Barrett 24 Jun 2008 |

Tom Barrett is a Tyee contributing editor with a focus on climate change policy and politics.

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Canada's footprint: third largest.

The richest 10 per cent of Canadians have nearly two-and-a-half times the environmental impact of the poorest 10 per cent, a new study says.

And, the study argues, climate change policies that ignore this disparity will not only be ineffective, but will make income inequality worse.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study concludes that "the consumption of high-income Canadians is having a very real and damaging effect on the environment."

The study found that the per capita ecological footprint of the richest 10 per cent of Canadian households is 66 per cent higher than the national average.

The study was written by Hugh Mackenzie, an economist with the centre, Hans Messinger, a Statistics Canada senior advisor and consultant, and Rick Smith, of Environmental Defence.

They divided Canadian households into 10 equal groups, or deciles. The top decile is the 10 per cent of Canadian households with the highest incomes; the bottom decile is the 10 per cent with the lowest incomes.

Statistics Canada data were used to calculate each group's consumption -- how much they spend, and what they spend it on. These figures were then converted into an estimation of ecological footprint -- each group's impact on the environment.

Canada's footprint third largest

The authors say this is the first study to look at the size of Canadians' eco¬logical footprint by income categories.

Overall, it notes, Canadians have a disproportionate impact on the globe.

Canada's ecological footprint is the third largest in the world, it says, tied with that of Finland. Only the United States and the United Arab Emirates have larger footprints, the study says.

And, it says, "Canadians at every income level are contributing to global warming. Even low-income Canadians have a greater impact on the environment than most of the world's population."

However, it's those at the top that have by far the largest impact. The size of a household's footprint "grows systematically" as income rises, the study says.

That goes for every category of consumption except for food.

Eating: the 'great equalizer'

"In ecologi¬cal footprint terms, it turns out that food is the great equalizer," the study says.

On average, it says, we all eat more or less the same amount. The rich tend to eat better, if not more, but "quality" foods like choice cuts of meat and vintage wines "demand only marginally higher land use than lower priced products," the study concludes.

"For about 70 per cent of Canadians, food is the most significant con¬tributor to their household's ecological footprint," the study says. "It is only for the highest-income 30 per cent of Canadian households that the housing footprint exceeds the food footprint."

In housing and transportation in particular, the top 10 per cent has a footprint that is several times larger than the footprint of lower-income and lower-middle-income Canadians. It's even significantly greater than the footprint of the second-highest income group.

Much of the impact of low-income and middle-income Canadians comes from consuming the basic necessities, food and shelter. The disproportionate impact of the rich was the most apparent in the study's other categories of consumption: services, goods and mobility.

When it comes to consuming services, the top 10 per cent had a footprint 2.7 times that of the lowest 10 per cent. For goods, the top group's footprint was 3.75 times that of the lowest group's.

High flying affluence

And in the category of mobility, the top group's footprint was a whopping nine times that of the bottom group. As the study notes, the rich drive and fly a lot more than the poor.

The study also puts Canadians' environmental impact into global perspective.

The average footprint of the lowest 10 per cent of Canadian income earners is still three times the average foot¬print in China -- and more than seven times the average footprint in India, the study says.

The world has come to accept that "as citizens of a wealthy, consumer-oriented society, Canadians contribute disproportionately to the global warming phenomenon and must expect to contrib¬ute disproportionately to the solution."

Make income a policy factor: authors

But there has been little mention of similar imbalances within Canadian society, the study says.

"Indeed, the implicit message in the One Tonne Challenge -- the former federal government's advertising attempt to get Canadians involved in greenhouse gas re¬duction -- was that all Canadians are equally responsible for global warming. The findings in this study indicate the burden of proof lies heavily at the feet of the rich¬est Canadians among us and public policy should reflect that imbalance."

One example lies in the area of housing, the study says.

"Low- and lower-middle income Canadian households are far more likely to rent rather than own their housing. As tenants, they are gener¬ally not in a position to make decisions with respect to the energy efficiency of their homes because they are not responsible for the capital investments required to give effect to those decisions.

"In many cases, tenants are not even in a position to con¬trol the temperature in their rented homes."

The market and its limits

Relying on market-based solutions to lower greenhouse gas emissions therefore won't have much effect on the rental housing market, the study argues.

"Because energy costs are generally incurred by landlords and passed through to tenants, whatever economic incentives are created by mar¬ket measures in the rental housing market will generally be created at the wrong place.

"And to the extent that landlords are forced to make environmental improve¬ments, they will simply pass the cost on to their tenants by raising their rents -- a practice that would exacerbate income inequality in Canada and unfairly penalize lower-income households."

Ignoring "the underlying relationship between ecological impact and income" could produce "the worst of all policy worlds," the study says.

"In short, if we fail to incorporate differences in environmental impact that are systematically related to income, we risk creating an ineffective policy that has the side effect of imposing disproportionate costs on the low- and moderate-income Canadians who have contributed the least to the problems we are trying to address."

Related Tyee stories:


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