Gloomy report misrepresents Canada’s environmental performance

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posted May 4, 2016

It would hardly be an Earth Day (which took place last week) without the publication of a new report damning Canadians as environmental laggards. In prior years, these reports would have come from the Suzuki Foundation. But this year, the Conference Board of Canada has taken on the role of Canada’s environmental scold, with their publication of an environmental report card that ranks Canada poorly among ostensibly comparable countries, and gives us less-than-stellar letter grades for environmental performance.

But let’s consider the Conference Board’s “environmental” metrics, which were in four categories—Air pollution, Waste, Freshwater management, and Climate change—with several sub-metrics in each category, such as emissions of conventional air pollutants, considering water withdrawals as part of Freshwater management, and including factors such as low-emitting electricity production under the climate change category. Some of these indicators are valid, such as air pollution, but other indicators are problematic.

Let’s start with air pollution. As we documented in the study Canadian Environmental Indicators—Air Quality, in most instances, Canadians currently experience significantly better air quality than at any other time since continuous monitoring of air quality began in the 1970s. Most notably, concentrations of two of the air pollutants of greatest concern—ground-level ozone and ultrafine particulate matter—have generally decreased across Canada since 2000. By focusing on per-capita emissions, the Conference Board turns a great air pollution control story upside down. Of course Canadians are likely to emit more per capita—we live in a huge, cold-weather climate with vast transportation needs, and we service a massive economy to our south with goods and services, including natural resources.

What’s important about air quality is not absolute emissions per capita, but whether people and the environment are being harmed by air pollution. On that front, the answer is “very few.” Air quality in Canada rarely crosses the thresholds that indicate significant health risk exist. And those thresholds, one should add, are themselves highly conservative. Canadians need have little concern that breathing is a dangerous act.

Now, let’s move onto waste generation. First, it’s unclear how a metric of waste generation per capita tells us anything about environmental harm—that would all depend on how waste is disposed of, not how much one makes. But Canadians are hardly lackadaisical about waste minimization and diversion. According to Statistics Canada, 92 per cent of households in Canada have access to recycling programs, and 98 per cent of those households actively recycle: 94 per cent recycle glass, 97 per cent recycle paper and plastic, and 92 per cent recycle metallic waste.

The same is true for water withdrawals and wastewater treatment—what matters is not how much we take out of the environment, it’s whether those withdrawals actually damage surface water and ground water that matters. On that score, Canada’s doing just fine. Our recent study on water quality showed amazing progress in Canada when it comes to cleaning up our waterways and keeping withdrawals to ecologically safe levels.

Finally, about those greenhouse gases. As Environment Canada points out Canada’s greenhouse gas levels have been declining since 2005 on a total-mass basis, on a per capita basis, and on the basis of emissions per unit of economic productivity. By any measure, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are in decline.

Slamming Canada based on an index that looks at indicators tangential to actual environmental and human health impacts, while ignoring the massive progress Canadians have made in cleaning up and protecting their environment, will not further the cause of environmental and health protection. Indeed, to the extent that it’s used to bludgeon Canadian governments into emulating Ontario’s green power fiasco (where high energy prices constitute a monthly mugging for Ontario’s poorer citizens), the Conference Board report card is likely to lead to reduced economic productivity for both the private and public sectors, sapping the very revenues needed to measure environmental progress, and deal with environmental problems that the private sector can’t, or won’t.

Contrary to the Conference Board’s gloomy report, Canada’s environmental performance is one of the countries great success stories. It hardly justifies slamming the country as some kind of environmental laggard and international lay-about, as the Conference Board would have us believe.

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