Earth Day 2004 - No Cause for Alarm

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Appeared in the Vancouver Province, Saskatoon Star Phoenix and the Ottawa Citizen.
On the 34th anniversary of Earth Day, people continue to be bombarded with alarming claims about environmental degradation and related health impacts. Through recent surveys of college students attending Institute seminars, the Fraser Institute has found a strong disconnect between Canadian student perceptions of environmental trends (mostly negative) and the reality of environmental trends (mostly positive). For example, eighty-one percent of the students attending Fraser Institute seminars in the last year who responded to our survey questions believe that air quality in Canada is either deteriorating or failing to improve. Eighty-two percent of respondents are convinced that annual forest harvests exceed regrowth. Seventy-seven percent of respondents also believe the overall environment has deteriorated, or failed to improve, over the last 15 years.

But the true state of the Canadian environment is quite different than portrayals of alarmists or the understanding of the public. Things are, in fact, improving dramatically in Canada as improvements in technology, higher incomes, and responsive democratic systems have created an ever-increasing ability to protect the environment.

While we do still have some environmental challenges to face, such as ozone pollution, coastal water pollution, and fishery protection, we have made spectacular strides in protecting our environment over the last three decades. People should be celebrating, not living their lives in fear of environmental apocalypse.

As a new report from the Fraser Institute shows, Canada’s environmental trends are largely positive, and sometimes amazingly so. One of the greatest success stories in environmental improvement is the increasing quality of the air Canadians breathe. Ambient levels of sulphur dioxide, a pollutant produced by burning coal and oil which can cause breathing problems and aggravation of respiratory disease, decreased over 73 percent between 1974 and 2001. Ambient levels of particulate matter, which can irritate lung tissue and reduce visibility in the air, decreased 54 percent between 1974 and 2001. Poisonous carbon monoxide levels decreased by 83 percent from 1974 to 2001 despite the fact that there has been a 30 percent increase in total vehicle registrations over the same period. The decline in ambient lead levels is another spectacular success story in the efforts to reduce air pollution. Ambient lead levels fell 94 percent in Canada from 1974 and 1998, a concentration so low that it no longer needed measuring.

Though the quality of the nation’s surface water is more difficult to assess, Canada’s water quality has also improved, according to the study. For example, in British Columbia, which monitors 33 water bodies based on a set of Provincial Water Quality Objectives, 50 percent of the water bodies evaluated are in Good or Excellent condition, and 94 percent of the water bodies are rated to be at least Fair. Only 2 water bodies are considered Borderline, and none are rated to be Poor. Since the 1960s, levels of toxic contaminants such as PCBs decreased dramatically in each of the great lakes. Levels of DDE (a breakdown product of DDT) decreased 86 percent in Lake Ontario, 89 percent in Lake Erie, 85 percent in Lake Michigan, 91 percent in Lake Superior, and 93 percent in Lake Huron from 1974 to 2002. PCB levels showed similar trends, decreasing 89 percent in Lake Ontario, 82 percent in Lake Erie, 80 percent in Lake Michigan, 87 percent in Lake Superior, and 92 percent in Lake Huron relative to their levels in the mid 1970s.

But in surveying students who attend Fraser Institute seminars across Canada, we consistently find that they are being miseducated about environmental progress by their teachers, textbooks, the media, and activist groups. In virtually every area where the data unequivocally shows improvement, students think things are getting worse.

Still another commonly voiced concern is that Canada’s forests are disappearing. But this just isn’t the case. Because most of Canada’s forests are growing on crown land, the provincial governments determine appropriate annual allowable cut levels based on area and volume of forest and predicted growth rates. Although total harvest volume in Canada increased 65.3 percent from 1970 to 1999, at no time did the harvest level exceed the defined annual allowable cut. In fact, in only two years during this period (1989 and 1999), did the harvested volume exceed even 80 percent of the annual allowable cut.

There is much cause for optimism about the state of Canada’s environment, and people should be celebrating that progress. Environmental trends across the board are improving, and should continue to improve in coming years. While environmental alarmists publish a steady stream of scary reports based on dubious science, all it takes is a quick look at the data to show that the reality of environmental progress is overwhelmingly positive.

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