Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2022. Robert Lyman’s bio can be read here.
The purpose of this paper is to report the facts about the trends in environmental quality in Canada and about the standards with which that quality can and should be measured. It is to shine the light on the truth, in the hope that this will improve the quality of the public policy discussion.
As long as people are prone to think and talk about “the environment” as though it were one big, integrated subject that concerns “protecting Mother Nature”, they will fail to understand the detailed issues and the differences between areas in which there are genuine problems and those where there are not. Generalizing about “the environment” has become a rhetorical tool to avoid increasingly important distinctions.
Ozone is a key component of urban smog, which in high concentrations can affect visibility and impair lung function. Ambient concentrations of ground-level ozone have trended downwards since 2000, and in 2015 were 27% below 1979 levels. Concentrations above the air-quality standard declined from 70% in the 1970s to 16% by 2015.
Fine particulates in high concentrations can also affect one’s lungs. Concentrations of fine particulate matter in Canada have only been measured since 2000, and ambient levels have consistently remained below the new air-quality standards., even though no specific trend has been detected.
Sulphur dioxide was once a large cause of acid rain. In the last four decades, concentrations of sulphur dioxide have fallen dramatically across Canada and since 1999 have met the strictest annual air-quality standard. In 2015, ambient levels of sulphur dioxide in Canada were 92.3% lower than in 1974.
Ambient concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, which contributes to smog, decreased 74.4% from 1974 to 2015. The levels have been consistently below the strictest air-quality standard since 1985.
Carbon monoxide concentrations fell 90.4% in Canada from 1974 to 2015 and have conformed to the strictest air-quality standard since 1985.
Canada has the third largest supply of renewable fresh water in the world. Canadians consume only about 1% of the water supply that is annually available. According to Statistics Canada , total water use in Canada was 12% lower in 2017 compared with six years earlier, despite increased population and economic activity.
For the 2014-2016 period, water quality ratings for rivers in southern Canada indicated that 40% of the sites rated were good (63 sites) or excellent (nine sites), 42% were rated fair (74 sites), 16% were rated marginal (28 sites) and only 2% were rated poor (four sites). Based on Environment Canada surveys over the period 2002 to 2016, 81% of the sites showed no change, 10% were improving, and 9% were deteriorating.
Municipal wastewater and sewage systems are some of the largest sources of pollution to surface water in Canada. Over the period 2013 to 2017, the proportion of the population served by municipal wastewater systems remained stable at 86%.
The federal and provincial governments have made the establishment and “conserving” of large land areas one of the key instruments in policies to “safeguard biodiversity for present and future generations by reducing stresses from human activities”. Canada’s land territory is 9,984, 670 square kilometres. The federal government’s policy aims to “conserve” 25% of the land by 2025 and 30% by 2030. This is up from 10.5% in 2015.
Generally, municipalities have two main alternatives to manage Municipal Solid Waste (MSW): disposal and diversion. Waste disposal refers to sending the waste to landfills or incinerating it in waste-to-energy facilities. Solid waste diversion, in contrast, refers to preparing MSW for recycling, composting, and re-using activities.
Today, landfill sites are engineered, operated, and monitored under strict technical standards to ensure compliance with federal regulations and to protect the environment from noxious waste. Between 2002 and 2018, Canadian MSW increased by 16%, from 30.7 million tonnes to 35.5 million tonnes. When we account for population and economic activity, however, Canadians are generating less waste over time – 2% less on a per capita basis and 23% less per unit of GDP in 2018 compared to 2002. At the same time, waste diversion has steadily increased. In 2018, about 28% of MSW was diverted – mainly paper fibres and organics- compared to about 22 % in 2002.
Canadian federal and provincial Ministers of the Environment set a non-binding “aspirational” goal of reducing per-capita solid waste disposal form 700 kilograms (kg) in 2018 to 490 kg By 2030 and 350 kg by 2050.
Canadian GHG emissions actually rose slightly from 2005 to 2019, but declined due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the adverse effect of government restrictions on the economy in 2020. Canadian GHG emissions per capita, however, have decreased significantly since 2005 when they were 22.7 tonnes CO2 equivalent per person. In 2017, emissions per capita were 19.6 tonnes per capita, the lowest level recorded since records began in 1990. GHG emissions per dollar of Gross Domestic Product actually fell by 40% from 1990 to 2020.
With the measures planned by the federal government, emissions are projected to decline to 588 million tonnes in 2030, still 77 million tonnes above the target of 511 million tonnes. The government plans more measures to make up the difference.
Other Environmental Factors
Agricultural activities can have several negative environmental impacts, including loss of habitat, degradation of soil and fertility, and deterioration of water and air. Among the main concerns bout the effects of agriculture are excessive use of fertilizers (nitrogen and Phosphorous) and intensive use of pesticides.
Out of 31 high-income OECD countries compared by the Fraser Institute, Canada’s nitrogen-balance ranked fourth, averaging 26.58 kg/ha, with only Iceland, Australia and Estonia performing better.
Average use of pesticides is measured in terms of kilograms of pesticide per hectare (kg/ha). With average use of 1.9 kg/ha of pesticides, Canada ranks 11th out of 33 countries and is well below the OECD average of 4.14 kg/ha.
Generally and with few exceptions, Canada’s environmental performance is very good. This is especially the case with respect to the progress that has been made in reducing air contaminants and in the availability and quality of water. Where performance to date has not been significantly improving, policies and measures are in most cases already underway to make them better. In some cases, as in municipal waste water treatment, the issue is one of cost. It is time to celebrate our environmental performance.
Read the full report.