Canada’s environmental performance: cause for concern?

by Stan Hirst

During the run-up to the 2015 Canadian federal elections a total of 164,704 respondents reacted to the simple online question “What issue is most important to you in this election?“. The largest proportion of respondents (36%) said “economy”. The next largest proportion (11%) said “environment”. The remaining issues cited were “health” (11%), “accountability” (7%) and “taxes” (6%).

When one looks at responses to open-ended questions like these the underlying assumption is that the levels of response relate in some way to public concerns about that category. The nature of the concerns isn’t obvious from the answer however. The next logical question, had there been one, should have been something like “What concerns you most about the environment?” I haven’t yet found a database which supplies a quick answer from the public perspective.

However, there is a very good set of data on Canada’s environmental performance as seen, not from a subjective perspective, but derived objectively from performance statistics. This is contained in the 2018 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) produced jointly by Yale and Columbia universities in collaboration with the World Economic Forum.

The underlying objective of the EPI is to provide a measurement of environmental trends and progress for use in effective policy making. The EPI ranks 180 countries on 24 performance indicators across ten issue categories covering environmental health and ecosystem vitality. These metrics provide a gauge at a national scale of how close a country is to achieving its established environmental policy goals.

The metrics are grouped into ten issue categories:

  • Air Quality
  • Water & Sanitation
  • Heavy Metals
  • Biodiversity & Habitat
  • Forests
  • Fisheries
  • Climate & Energy
  • Air Pollution
  • Water Resources
  • Agriculture

These issues are then aggregated into just two policy objectives –

  • Environmental Health
  • Ecosystem Vitality.

These two are then combined to give an overall EPI for the entire country.

Where does Canada stand in 2018? Just 25th in a list of 180 countries assessed in total. Our overall EPI is scored at 72, which is 15 points behind the world leader Switzerland. If the EPIs were used as a basis for a letter score similar to that used by most Canadian academic intuitions, we would have received a B minus. Only the top five countries would have scored higher than an A minus. A (very) small consolation in all this is that we edged the USA by about half a point.

Unpacking the details of the assessment, we find that Canada scores very highly in a number of diverse areas:

  • Drinking water quality
  • General air quality
  • Protection of biomes (including those of global significance as well as those of national importance),
  • General environmental health
  • Low exposure of the population to heavy metal contamination
  • High standard of agriculture (supported by sustainable nitrogen management).

However, some parameters linked to the above are highlighted as being of concern:

  • Wastewater treatment and sanitation
  • Particulate matter in industrial emissions
  • Concerns for adequate conservation of biodiversity and habitats in some regions, and a specific mention of deficiencies in the adequacy of marine protected areas.

Paradoxically some parameters related to the ones above in which Canada scores highly, are marked as being of serious concern. The discrepancy in interpretations seems to relate to the scale at which a parameter is assessed. So, for example, while nationwide air quality is good, some regional areas and provinces (Alberta and Ontario) are impacted by high emission levels of SO2 , NOX, N2O and “black carbon”.

The report highlights the fact that air quality remains the leading environmental threat to public health, not just in Canada, but in all countries where it is caused by industrial and/or urban emissions. In 2016 the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated that diseases related to high concentrations of airborne pollutants contributed to two-thirds of all life-years lost world-wide to environmentally related deaths and disabilities.

Fine particles can come from various sources. They include power plants, motor vehicles, airplanes, residential wood burning, forest fires, agricultural burning, volcanic eruptions and dust storms. Some are emitted directly into the air, while others are formed when gases and particles interact with one another in the atmosphere.

Since they are so small and light, fine particles tend to stay longer in the air than heavier particles. This increases the chances of humans and animals inhaling them into the bodies. Owing to their minute size, particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers are able to bypass the nose and throat and penetrate deep into the lungs and some may even enter the circulatory system.

Studies have found a close link between exposure to fine particles and premature death from heart and lung disease. Fine particles are also known to trigger or worsen chronic disease such as asthma, heart attack, bronchitis and other respiratory problems.  Canada is as vulnerable as the rest of the global community to these impacts.

The EPI singles out some iconic Canadian resources for specific mention of concern:

  • Extent of tree cover loss over large area (related to fires, insect damage and climate changes)
  • Marine fisheries resources (specifically regional marine trophic indices, the status of marine fish stocks, and species habitat and protection)

The global community has made noteworthy progress in protecting marine and terrestrial biomes, exceeding the international goals set for marine protection back in 2014. However the indicators which measure terrestrial protected areas show that more work needs to be done to ensure the presence of high-quality habitat free from human pressure.

With 20 years of experience, the EPI has uncovered a tension between the two fundamental dimensions of sustainable development – environmental health, which rises with economic growth and prosperity, and ecosystem vitality, which comes under strain from industrialization and urbanization.

They accordingly attempt to derive objective measures for each of these complex parameters.

  • Environmental Health is measured by a value called disability-adjusted life-years (DALYs) which uses a formula based on each country’s overall air quality, water quality (drinking and sanitation) and levels of exposure to ambient lead.
  • Ecosystem Vitality is calculated by combining measures for biodiversity loss in habitats, forests and fisheries due to climate change and pollution.

The bottom line is that a comparison of environmental health on one hand and environmental vitality on the other is something of an embarrassment for Canada.  We have an Environmental Health score of 97.5 which places us 7th in the world, but an Ecosystem Vitality score of just 55 which gives us a world ranking of 74th. No offence to the citizens of those countries, but that places Canada behind Malawi, Venezuela, Russia, Qatar and Turkmenistan, amongst others.

Dragging us down in the EV standings are the same factors mentioned earlier –

  • forestry cover loss
  • status of fish stocks
  • marine trophic index
  • current intensity of CO2, N2O, NOx, methane and black carbon.

Canadians often gloat about the general quality of life in their country.  Our environmental health ratings shown above seem to justify that attitude.  But what can we do about that embarrassing ecosystem vitality score?

Just making it more widely known would be a starter. Hopefully the next time that pre-election question on “what issue is most important to you in this election?” comes up we will be a little more enlightened in our response.


1 comment

  1. The areas of deficiency are forestry cover loss, status of fish stocks, marine trophic index, and current intensity of CO2, N2O, NOx, methane and black carbon. It seems to me we need:
    1. Even greater attention to forestry practices, including clear cutting, etc.
    2. A better job by Fisheries — which is a continuing problem in Canada. This relates to the marine trophic index (the ecology of the ocean, I suppose). How much is due to climate change and how much we can control, I don’t know.
    3. Capping the Oilsands at the current level of extraction (which won’t happen with a new pipeline) and reducing it over time; no LNG development (which seems to be going ahead).

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