On Earth Day, we should celebrate Canada’s environmental track record
We often hear misleading statements about how Canada fares poorly on environmental performance. But many people might be surprised to learn that, contrary to common rhetoric, Canada’s environment is improving.
And today—Earth Day—a day that reminds us of the importance of taking care of our planet, we can reflect on the progress we’ve made on several key environmental measures over the last few decades.
Consider air quality. A 2017 study, which examined emissions and the amount of pollutants in the air (ambient concentrations) including ground level ozone, fine particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide, showed how Canada’s air quality has improved considerably over the last four decades.
For instance, ambient levels of ground-level ozone, a key component of urban smog, decreased 27 per cent from 1979 to 2015. Similarly, national levels of sulphur dioxide, a pollutant largely associated with the combustion of oil and coal, plummeted by 92 per cent since the 1970s. Canada also 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.
Interestingly, these reductions happened despite considerable growth in population, energy use, motor fuel consumption and the Canadian economy, which means Canada has effectively managed to decouple air pollution from economic growth.
Now consider water quality. A 2018 study looked at the state of Canada’s freshwater resources, evaluating the quantity and quality of Canada’s freshwater. According to federal government data from monitoring stations across the country, 90 per cent of Canadian rivers had normal or above-normal water quantity while only 10 per cent had lower-than-normal water quantity.
Most water quality measures indicate stable or modest improvements over the past few years, with reductions in the amount of pollution entering our waterways. Despite some localized issues primarily in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River regions, the study found improvements in several areas including municipal wastewater treatment, regulatory compliance of mining operations, and releases of metals into waters from pulp and paper plants and sewage treatment plants.
And that’s not all. Canadians are disposing less solid waste when we account for population and economic activity. Indeed, per-capita solid waste disposal declined by 10 per cent between 2002 and 2018. And solid waste disposal intensity, which measures the tonnes of solid waste disposed per unit of economic output (i.e. GDP), declined by almost 30 per cent during the same time period. This suggests Canada has successfully decoupled solid waste disposal from economic growth as well.
Additionally, Canada’s electricity production is one of the cleanest in the world largely due to our abundance of hydro and nuclear power. Consequently, Canada has shown a significant improvement in decarbonizing electricity by reducing its generation intensity by 40 per cent since the 1990s. In other words, not only do we have a virtually decarbonized electricity grid but every kilowatt we generate is now cleaner than ever.
In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, Canada has also shown progress by reducing its emissions intensity (GHG emissions per unit of economic activity) over the past two decades. Specifically, between 1990 and 2019, Canada’s emissions intensity declined by 37 per cent.
Regardless of the progress we’ve made on our environmental stewardship, there’s always room for improvement. But Canadians should be proud of the progress we’ve made on several key environmental measures.