The results are in—Canada’s air quality among the best in the world

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald, April 20, 2018

Canadians can breathe easy this Earth Day knowing our air quality is among the world’s best. According to a recent Fraser Institute study, Canada ranks 9th out of the 33 richest and cleanest countries on the planet for overall air quality. Despite misinformed claims by activists, and previous reports from other organizations, Canada’s air quality is something all Canadians can celebrate.

Specifically, previous reports from the Conference Board of Canada and the David Suzuki Foundation used flawed methods that ranked Canada near the bottom among OECD countries for air quality.

Such a result, if true, would be of great concern for all Canadians since clean air is a goal all Canadians should agree on. However, a closer look at these reports finds that they are deeply flawed. For example, they evaluate air quality by simply measuring emissions per person—to simply add up all the emissions in each country and then adjust by population size.

The implication of such an approach is that the location of emitters, such as large industrial operations (the oilsands, for example), doesn’t matter when it comes to air quality. Consider what that means in practical terms—an emitter located in a downtown urban centre would have the same effect on air quality as one located in the remote northern reaches of the country.

Understanding how the location of emitters influences air quality is particularly important for a country such as Canada, with its vast land mass and small population. In other words, accounting for the population actually exposed to air pollution is critical when comparing air quality across different jurisdictions.

In addition, most countries have air quality standards that limit air pollutants to levels they deem safe. Looking at how much air pollutant levels exceed agreed-upon air quality standards is a good way to compare air quality among countries. The World Health Organization (WHO), for example, sets air quality guidelines for air pollutants based on an analysis of health risks. Unfortunately, past reports from other organizations have omitted these key factors.

Nevertheless, to accurately measure Canada’s air quality and its impact on human health, our study uses two measures. The first examines the extent to which people are actually exposed to harmful fine particulate matter (an air pollutant that includes smoke, fumes, dust, etc.) and measures average levels of fine particulate matter weighted by the population exposed to it. On this measure, Canada ranks 9th out of 33 high-income OECD countries.

The second measures the portion of the population in each country exposed to unsafe air pollutant levels set by the WHO. On this measure, Canada performs better than the majority of countries in the study (including Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands), with 79 per cent of Canadians exposed to levels of fine particulate matter that comply with the air quality standard—again, set by the WHO.

Interestingly, Canada not only performs well compared to its international peers, it has also substantially improved its absolute air quality since the 1970s. According to a recent study on how Canada’s air quality has changed over time, Canada’s levels of sulphur dioxide (a pollutant largely associated with acid rain) plummeted by 92 per cent between 1974 and 2015.

Overall, the evidence is clear—Canadians enjoy excellent air quality relative to other wealthy countries. This Earth Day, remember that our air quality is among the best-of-the-best in the world.

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