Canada is, as far as countries go, relatively cold and sparsely populated. Our houses are large by global standards, and we drive a fair amount. We are rich enough to consume a lot of stuff. These factors, together with the oil sands, mean that we have one of the world's highest levels of CO2 emissions on a per capita basis: 13.5 metric tons (MT) per person in 2013.
Over the past decade, Canada has been admitting about a quarter of a million new immigrants annually. The majority of them come from countries, such as the Philippines, India or China, which are warmer, poorer, and more densely populated than is Canada - and where the typical person produces far fewer CO2 emissions on a per capita basis. When someone moves from one of these countries to Canada, and adopts a Canadian lifestyle, their "carbon footprint" - the amount of carbon they use in their daily lives - would be expected to increase. This is the carbon cost of immigration.
I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the increase in global CO2 emissions associated with Canada's immigration flows. I started out by assuming that when the typical immigrant moves from, say, China to Canada, they go from producing the average Chinese level of carbon emissions (7.55 MT per person per year) to the average Canadian level (13.53 MT). By multiplying the difference in per capita carbon emissions by the number of immigrants from that country, I estimated the increase (or, in some case, the decrease) in global carbon emissions associated with people moving to Canada and adopting a Canadian lifestyle. For example, if the 34,130 people who immigrated from China to Canada in 2013 all increased their carbon emissions by 5.98 MT annually when they switched from having a Chinese lifestyle to a Canadian lifestyle, global carbon emissions would rise by about 200,000 metric tons annually.
The results of these calculations are shown below. The full data, with all source countries, is here: Download Co2 and immigration
These calculations suggest that, in 2013 alone, immigration to Canada - and the associated adoption of a high-carbon Canadian lifestyle - could have increased global carbon emissions by almost 2.5 million metric tons annually.
Now there is a serious problem with these back-of-the-envelope calculations. First, they include emissions associated with industrial activity, and industrial activity is unlikely to change much as a result of emigration or immigration. Second, the calculations assume that migrants live a lifestyle that is typical of their country of residence. This is almost certainly not the case. If the typical person who moves from India to Canada is an urban, educated, middle-class professional, their carbon emissions prior to immigration will likely be higher than the Indian average of 1.59 MT per person. If that Indian immigrant, once they arrive in Canada, moves into a small apartment and takes public transit, their post-migration carbon emissions will be lower than the Canadian average of 13.5 MT per person. If I had to guess, I would suggest that the actual increase in global carbon emissions associated with people moving to Canada is in the five hundred thousand to one million MT range, rather than 2.5 million MT. But it is not nothing.
Climate and geography mean that life in most parts of Canada is intrinsically energy intensive. Encouraging people to move here has potentially serious impacts on the environment. The Trudeau government has already increased the planned immigration levels for 2016 to 280,000 to 305,000 new permanent residents, and Immigration Minister John McCallum has announced plans to further increase these levels "substantially". The analysis here suggests that a full accounting of the costs and benefits of increasing immigration flows might prompt a reconsideration of the government's plans.
One frequently touted motivation for immigration is demographics. Canada's population is aging. The thinking seems to be that only by bringing in more young people will we be able to support all the old folks. Yet, given that Canada is such an energy intensive place to live, perhaps there are other, more environmentally friendly solutions to our demographic problems. Perhaps, rather than bringing workers into Canada to care for our old folks, we should be moving our old folks to warmer, gentler climes; places where labour is relatively abundant. Rather than solving our demographic crisis by bringing workers from the Philippines to Canada, perhaps we could think about shipping our old folks out to the Philippines instead. Set up old folks homes near the beach at Boracay. Or some other place with a warm, low-carbon lifestyle and low-cost healthcare.
Just a modest proposal for solving the looming demographic crisis.