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The statement from the most recent Group of Seven heads of government annual meeting, held earlier this month in Japan, is an encyclopedia of commitments and wishes, weighing in at 40 pages and 19,000 words. It takes positions on everything from human rights in Afghanistan to the challenge of artificial intelligence to the need for “stable access to affordable, safe, sufficient and nutritious food for each and every individual” on the planet.

There’s also a long section on climate change, and the urgency of lowering global emissions. As there should be.

The average G7 leader, to say nothing of the average G7 citizen, may be under the impression that this confab, with Canada sat in the seventh seat, is the club of the world’s most powerful countries and a kind of alternative global government. It isn’t. The G7 speaks for only a fraction of the Earth’s population. It also accounts for well under half the world’s economic output, a share that is steadily falling.

And when it comes to greenhouse gases, the G7′s contribution is surprisingly small. Small, and shrinking.

That doesn’t mean a G7 country like Canada shouldn’t be taking major steps to lower our emissions. We’re part of the problem, and we’re part of the solution. It’s just that we’re not a very big part of either.

As a recent report from National Bank of Canada pointed out, our share of global emissions is lower than it’s been in a century. Despite a growing population and a sharp rise in oil output in the early 2000s, Canada’s carbon emissions have fallen from 2.2 per cent of the planet’s output at the start of the century to just 1.5 per cent today.

And it’s not just Canada. In 1990, the G7 accounted for 40 per cent of global emissions, according to the European Union’s EDGAR emissions database. By 2021, that had been halved to 21 per cent. The entire developed world – the G7, the rest of the EU, Australia, South Korea and a few countries – accounted for around 30 per cent of the planet’s emissions in 2021.

The bulk of the world’s carbon output, 70 per cent and rising fast, comes from the developing world. Since the 1990s, emissions have been gradually falling in the developed world – and exploding across the Global South.

Take China. It is now the biggest polluter, by far. Its emissions more than doubled between 2002 and 2010, as Canada’s flatlined. China’s emissions grew at a pace equivalent to adding an extra Canada’s worth of carbon into the atmosphere each year, for eight years in a row. China’s growth has since slowed; it’s now adding new carbon emissions at rate of one Canada every two years.

China produces a third of the world’s emissions, more than all of the developed world. That’s more than 20 times Canada’s carbon output.

And China has company. India’s emissions, barely higher than Canada’s in 1990, now equal those of the EU. Indonesia, whose emissions were a third of Canada’s in 1990, is now a bigger polluter than us.

Or consider Vietnam. I travelled the country for a few dollars a day in the 1990s when its official name, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, still meant something. There were no bank machines, the national airline flew Soviet jets inherited from defunct East Germany, cars were a rarity and electricity demand was minimal. In 1990, Britain’s carbon output was more than 2,500 per cent larger than Vietnam’s. By 2021, the two countries were level – because Britain nearly halved its emissions, while Vietnam’s carbon output increased 16-fold.

The cause? Skyrocketing demand for electricity, with most of that new demand met with coal. It’s a pattern seen across the developing world. Vietnam’s electricity production is up more than 1,500 per cent since 1995 – and nearly half of its electricity comes from coal.

There are a few takeaways from all of this.

First of all, natural gas can play, and is playing, a big role in displacing dirtier coal, across the developing world. However little the Trudeau government wants to talk about it, more of that gas could be Canadian.

Canada and the G7 also have a part to play in helping developing countries finance a shift from coal to zero-emission renewables.

But above all, we need to recognize how much of this is out of our hands. Unless China, India and other developing countries make a U-turn on emissions, Canada’s carbon reduction plans will be so much emptying a pool with a soup spoon, as someone else fills it to overflowing with a firehose.

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