Skip to main content
subscribers only

ROB Insight is a premium commentary product offering rapid analysis of business and economic news, corporate strategy and policy, published throughout the business day. Visit the ROB Insight homepage for analysis available only to subscribers.

Look around at your neighbours; who do you think is the biggest greenhouse-gas polluter? Is it the family that refuses to recycle? The people who leave all their lights on, day and night? The soccer mom with an SUV the size of Prince Edward Island?

Maybe none of the above. It's probably the executive whose car is sitting at the airport Park-n-Fly lot.

A recent study from researchers at the University of Alberta, looking at the carbon footprint of households in the province, found that the wealthiest quintile of households produce more than twice the volume of greenhouse gases as the poorest quintile. And the discrepancy is most striking when it comes to air travel.

Air travel accounted for 15 per cent of all of household greenhouse gas emissions; that's an awfully big number for something most of us only do a couple of times a year. But in the highest-income quintile, air travel is a whopping 26 per cent of their carbon footprint, compared with just 5 per cent in the lowest-income quintile. Combined with the fact that the highest-income group has more than double the total emissions of the low-income group, and that means wealthy frequent fliers are responsible for more than 10 times as much aircraft exhaust as their poorer, stay-at-home neighbours.

Indeed, the frequent fliers' carbon footprint is large enough to wipe out the benefits of household recycling programs, which have been such a large focus of greening-the-home efforts in Canadian urban centres in recent years. The researchers found the energy consumed in handling household waste accounts for just 6 per cent of the household carbon footprint. Even if the average household eliminated their household waste entirely, the carbon emitted from frequent fliers would overwhelm the savings.

The researchers (Emily Huddart Kennedy, Harvey Krahn and Naomi T. Krogman) believe this implies that a lot of the government resources spent on green initiatives have been misdirected – aimed at household recycling and conservation efforts that may ultimately have little impact on the overall carbon footprint.

More could be gained, they argue, by focusing resources on reducing the transportation footprint. And that would include initiatives to reduce air travel for business. Business travel accounts for only roughly 10 per cent of all trips by Canadians, but as much as 50 per cent of all air travel, according to historical data.

It all suggests a strong environmental case could be made for Canada to finally embrace the idea of modernized, high-speed passenger rail between Canada's major business centres. While the value of such an expensive infrastructure undertaking is often debated in terms of its economic and productivity benefits and its viability as a business endeavour, the University of Alberta findings suggest there could well be a substantial carbon-emissions gain from getting frequent business travellers out of the skies and into less carbon-intensive modes of transport.

David Parkinson is a contributor to ROB Insight, the business commentary service available to Globe Unlimited subscribers. Click here for more of his Insights , and follow David on Twitter at @ParkinsonGlobe .