The Sky Is Not Falling

Commentary, Environment, Frontier Centre

This spring, in New Delhi, a group called the Global Environment Facility, whose mandate is to "protect the earth", told a gathering of environmentalists from 161 member countries that its mission cannot be accomplished without more money. We don’t take such issues seriously enough, they said.

How much money? The GEF has already received US$2 billion through its sponsors, the United Nations and the World Bank since its inception after the Rio summit in 1992. Its alarmist approach leveraged another US$2.75 billion from donating countries, to be paid over the next four years. Canada pledged another $122 million.

Where did the old money go? The GEF mounted projects to protect coral reefs in the Philippines, promote energy-efficient light bulbs in Poland, finance wind farms in southern India and reduce methane emissions from China’s coal mines, among others. "Even if we had $20 billion, we would not be able to solve all the problems," said the GEF’s chief executive.

He may be right, but not in the sense he intended. New research shows that progress on protecting the environment depends on the wealth levels a country manages to achieve. In rich, highly developed countries like Canada and the United States, the problem is looking after itself.

Before our representatives in Ottawa cut a new cheque for the GEF, they might want to take a look at this information, jointly produced by the Fraser Institute in Vancouver and the Pacific research Institute in San Francisco. Called Environmental Indicators for Canada and the United States, the study concludes that, at least here, fears about the degradation of our ecology are unfounded.

The study divides environmental concerns into ten categories and details how in each of them the data show sustained improvement. Air pollution, for instance, declined dramatically over the last two decades. The level of lead in the atmosphere is down 97% in both countries. Concentrations of sulphur and nitrogen dioxides, the main chemicals that compose acid rain fell 60% and 40% respectively. Carbon monoxide decreased 64% in the U.S. and 73% in Canada.

The condition of our waterways also shows improvement. About 91% of lakes and 86% of rivers in the United States can now support overall use by humans. The Great Lakes, with one-fifth of the world’s fresh water, are on the way back; phosphorus levels in Lake Ontario have declined by one-third and discharge targets have been met in all the others for at least ten years. Those who panicked over the recent suggestion that Canada export fresh water to other countries should note that we use less than two percent of this renewable resource annually.

The data on forests is also encouraging. Both countries now grow much more wood every year than is harvested. Only 60% of new growth is consumed by Americans, and just 73% by Canadians.

The size of American wetlands has been stable since 1980, and in Canada since 1986. Cities occupy only 4.6% of the landbase in the U.S. and in Canada, a piddling 0.1%. In category after category, the study’s environmental indicators show significant progress.

This good news never receives the media splash accorded oil spills and alleged ozone holes. Nor will it ever reach our country’s classrooms, where, chances are, children are taught that humans recklessly despoil the world.

What caused the turnaround in our environment? What message should we send to the GEF? "The wealthier the nation, the better its ability to protect its natural resources and control pollution," conclude the study’s authors.

In other words, once open markets and economic growth produce sustained abundance, countries can afford to turn their attention to issues like environmental quality.