Canada’s environmental record—Suzuki gets it wrong

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Appeared in the Calgary Sun, September 23, 2017

Once again, David Suzuki is misrepresenting Canada's environmental record. In a recent op-ed, Suzuki, the longtime broadcaster and environmental activist, tells Canadians that Canada is a world laggard in environmental protection.

Specifically, he said that "Canada ranks 25th among rich countries on children’s well-being, in part because of our failure to improve air quality." This is a false claim, as any empirical evaluation would show that Canada’s air quality has substantially improved over the past few decades.

Here are some facts. Canada’s air quality conforms to the strictest standards in the world. A recent Fraser Institute study used a massive archive of data from Environment Canada to examine the evolution of air quality from the 1970s onward, spotlighting emissions and ambient concentrations (the amount of pollutants in the air) of five major air pollutants—ground level ozone, fine particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. The results show Canada’s air pollution has substantially declined and complies with the world's strictest air quality standards.

Let’s look more closely at the data. Ambient levels of ground-level ozone, an air pollutant caused by emissions, decreased 27 per cent from 1979 to 2015. In fact, in the late 1970s, more than 70 per cent of air-quality monitoring stations across Canada reported ozone concentrations above the air-quality standard, but by 2015 this number had fallen to 16 per cent. With respect to fine particulate matter (smoke, aerosols, etc.), from 2000 to 2015 its concentrations consistently remained below the most stringent air-quality standard.

Same story for Canada’s ambient levels of sulphur dioxide, a pollutant largely associated with the combustion of oil and coal, which plummeted by 92 per cent from 1974 to 2015.

And in the last four decades Canada experienced substantial reductions in nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide—two pollutants largely associated with automobiles—with national levels decreasing by 74 per cent and 90 per cent respectively from 1974 to 2015. Again, in the mid-1970s, 54 per cent of monitoring stations across Canada reported readings out of compliance with the annual air-quality standard for nitrogen dioxide—in 2015 that percentage was zero.

Other studies have found similar results. For example, a recent study by Yale University compared Canada with other countries on several environmental indicators including air quality. The study included four indicators measuring average exposure, health risks to key air pollutants and the percentage of the population burning solid fuel indoors. Canada ranked 36th among 180 countries and 6th out of 16 high-income countries.

Environmental activists such as David Suzuki falsely accuse Canada of having poor air quality and reflexively call for “stronger air-quality standards,” yet they never discuss the data. Canada has dramatically reduced air pollution since the 1970s and complies with the tightest air quality standards anywhere. Imposing tighter regulations and tougher emission policies will come with high economic costs, without generating significant environmental benefits.

Canadians have nothing to hang their heads about when it comes to environmental protection and air quality. In fact, Canada’s environmental record is an achievement we should be proud of and celebrate.

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