Cheer Up, Canada’s Environmental Record is Improving

Commentary, Environment, Adrian Vannahme

Each year, Earth Day is used by many activists as an opportunity to scold Canadians for their “excessive” consumption and their “unsustainable” way of life. Further, in ritual-like fashion, we are warned that our bad habits have provoked a crisis and catastrophe looms unless governments immediately enact a raft of ambitious new laws. Fortunately, the preponderance of evidence suggests Canadian economic activity is becoming more sustainable, not nearing a crisis point, and that the condition of Canada’s natural environment is improving with each passing year.

For example, an examination of recent trends in air quality in Canada’s urban centers serves to illustrate this point. During the 1970s and 1980s, high concentrations of a wide variety of harmful toxins were found in the air of many Canadian towns and cities. Of particular concern were unsafe levels of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, two pollutants proven to cause potentially serious respiratory health problems, particularly for children and the elderly.

In response to widespread concern, the federal government established air quality objectives with target levels deemed to be acceptable (or not) for human health. To measure actual pollution levels against these standards, the government placed air quality monitoring stations in urban areas across the country.

In the late 1970s, many of these stations returned readings that were in excess of the government’s air quality objectives. For nitrogen dioxide, over 15 per cent of the monitoring stations returned readings above the national air quality objective. In the case of sulphur dioxide, over 20 per cent of monitoring stations reported unacceptable pollution concentrations. So 30 years ago, large numbers of Canadians were being exposed to unacceptable levels of these two harmful toxins.

However, by the early part of this decade, the environmental picture had brightened. By 2001, every single monitoring station in Canada reported nitrogen dioxide levels which met the government’s air quality objective. As for sulphur dioxide, just six per cent of stations returned readings which exceeded the government’s target level, a reduction of 72.5 percent from the late 1970s. Despite significant growth in population and in economic activity during this period, levels of these two dangerous pollutants had rapidly dropped; the result was a noticeable improvement in the quality of the air in Canada’s urban areas.

This is merely one example of a decades-long, pan-Canadian trend where economic activity has become more sustainable and where environmental progress has occurred. On other indicators to be released in an upcoming Frontier Centre report, it turns out our water is cleaner, our forests are more better-managed in terms of environmental outcomes, and our soil is better-protected against erosion compared with a few decades ago. Thus, the notion that Canada’s natural environment faces a crisis which demands our urgent attention and aggressive action simply does not square with these realities.

Many of the usual Earth Day scolds, however, would suggest that despite these overwhelmingly positive trends, Canada’s environmental track record is a failure because our country’s greenhouse gas emissions have continued to increase, this while some of our peer countries achieved impressive reductions. To those who view the threat of global warming as the only environmental issue that matters, Canada’s recent performance will indeed appear less impressive than it does to those who take a more comprehensive view of the environment.

Although many Canadians are concerned with the country’s greenhouse gas emissions levels, that’s just one indicator of Canada’s environmental sustainability. Canadians are also interested in the cleanliness of the air we breathe, the quality of the water we drink, and many other environmental issues which directly impact the quality of our lives. The majority of the available evidence suggests that Canada has made dramatic and sustained progress towards environmental sustainability in almost every one of these areas.

In light of these trends, Earth Day should not be an occasion for hand-wringing and lamentation. It should instead be viewed as an opportunity to celebrate the tremendous progress we have made towards greater environmental sustainability. There is always room for further improvement, and we should strive toward smart, environmentally-sustainable growth 365 days a year. This week, however, we should also reflect on what has already been achieved. So congratulations to all of us and, of course, Happy Earth Day!