NAFTA Report Fails to Provide Meaningful Environmental Indicators

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posted January 9, 2002

Since the report suggested a general worsening of environmental conditions could be expected in the future, it is not surprising that it made front page news. Pessimism sells. Monday's National Post published the findings on page A1 under the headline: NAFTA report prophesizes vast floods, 235 species in peril. To assure us that human activity is at least partly responsible for this undesirable state of affairs, the subheading reads SUVs Get Part of Blame. The Globe and Mail's front page coverage warns:  North America's natural resources from soil and forests to water and fish, and even clean air are being consumed at a rate that simply cannot be sustained.

Finding objective measurements of pollution, tracking those measurements over time in order to assess environmental improvement or deterioration, and publishing these environmental indicators makes sense. The public is concerned about environmental quality and a good environmental indicator report would be educational. In theory, tracking pollution levels could allow us to identify and focus resources on the most serious environmental problems.

But most environmental reports, including this latest from the CEC, fail to provide sound indicators. The discussion of automobiles illustrates the mistake they make of confusing consumption and pollution. The CEC considers facts such as nearly 90 percent of US and Canadian households, and more than 30 percent of Mexican households, own automobiles” worthy of highlighting in their news release. Is car ownership a sensible environmental indicator? No. Despite the increase in cars in Canada and the US, air quality has improved dramatically over the past thirty years partly because cars are much cleaner today.

The mistake the CEC makes of confusing consumption and pollution suggests that they are stuck in the 1970s mind-set that more economic growth means less environmental quality. A number of studies have proved this wrong. As a country reaches a per-capita income of around US$8,000, many indicators of pollution start to improve. Important indicators that have a dramatic impact on human health such as access to safe drinking water and the availability of sanitation improve immediately as incomes rise. The reason? People with a higher income can afford to make environmental concerns a priority.

The anti-economic development slant of the CEC report makes it read more like an activist manifesto than an objective government document. It is liberally peppered with pessimistic generalizations that are never supported but leave the reader feeling vaguely anxious about the future of the planet. The conclusion warns us: At the turn of the millennium, North Americans are faced with the paradox that many activities on which the North American economy is based impoverish the environment on which our well-being ultimately depends. Much has been done over recent decades to put the human relationship with the natural environment on a more sustainable footing. Yet we are still far from achieving that goal, and it is clear that the scale of effort is insufficient to meet the challenge.

Is a 36 percent reduction in air pollution in Canada and a 42 percent reduction in air pollution in the US over the last twenty years, and a 17 percent reduction in air pollution in Mexico over the last ten years what the authors mean by insufficient to meet the challenge?

Another tired activist tactic pervades the report: when you don’t have the evidence of a current crisis, speculate about a future one. Global warming, the mother of all environmental scares, is useful in this regard. The report warns us that the potential health consequences of climate change include deaths, illness, extreme weather events, flooding, disrupted sanitation, and demographic displacement and crowding due to environmental refugees. Why is there no reference made to the many scientists who are skeptical of these apocalyptic visions or to those who argue that the effects of warming may be benign or beneficial?

Environmental indicator reports should provide readers data with which to evaluate environmental trends. They should be educational, not ideological. The CEC report fails these tests. It is mostly pessimistic conjecture and unsupported opinion. Where data are provided, they are either not emphasized (because they show an improving trend) or are misapplied. This is too bad because real indicators would provide us with an opportunity to focus on real problems, instead of reinforcing the position of those environmental groups who still believe that using alarmism to get attention is the most effective way to improve environmental quality.

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