Don’t Fear the Environmental Bogeyman

Commentary, Environment, Adrian Vannahme

For decades, the more radical elements of the modern environmental movement have employed terrifying, apocalyptic rhetoric in an effort to scare citizens and policymakers into enacting an agenda that can go beyond common sense environmental policies. The success of this strategy was demonstrated by a recent poll of young children, aged six to 11, in which approximately one in three kids said that they fear the planet will be destroyed before they reach adulthood.

What’s more, a clear majority told the pollster they believe the earth will be a less “pleasant place to live” when they are adults than it is today.

These results are unsurprising, considering that these youngsters are bombarded with warnings of an impending environmental apocalypse.

Happily, the overwhelming majority of the evidence suggests that these frightened tykes needn’t be so upset. In fact, by most measurements, the environment is getting better over time, not worse, and these trends strongly suggest that despite their worries, our children will likely enjoy a healthier and less polluted natural environment in future years.

Take soil quality, for example. Soil quality is an extremely important component of environmental well-being; it directly affects the health of both land and water based ecosystems. Perhaps the single most important indicator of soil well-being is the extent to which cropland is protected from erosion.

Rapid soil erosion can have several negative effects, including reducing soil fertility and harm to wildlife. Canada’s record of improvement has been remarkable over the past 25 years. For example, in 1981, 23 per cent of Canadian cropland was deemed to be at a “high” or “very high” risk of tillage erosion, one of the three major types of erosion. By 2001, that was reduced to just two per cent. Similarly, for the other two types of erosion -wind erosion and water erosion, an impressive reduction in cropland exposed to high levels of risk has also taken place.

In other areas, Canada’s record is equally strong. On air quality, the level of harmful pollutants in urban centers dropped significantly in recent decades. During the 1970s, high levels of sulphur dioxide– a pollutant that causes acid rain, and nitrogen dioxide which causes health problems in human beings, were a major problem in many Canadian cities. By the early part of this decade, levels of these pollutants were significantly reduced. Now, the levels are consistently below government-established air quality objectives in towns and cities across the country.

Similarly, water quality in Canada is extremely good, and, according to Environment Canada, has improved measurably over time. In fact, Canada is a world leader in this area. According to The Environmental Protection Index indicator for water quality, a composite indicator of water quality designed by Yale and Columbia universities, Canada has the second highest level of water quality in the G8, behind only Italy.

Even in the one area where Canada is most consistently decried as a laggard, greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), our record is actually mixed. Although total greenhouse gasses have risen approximately 20 per cent over the past 20 years, this has been driven primarily by population growth and economic development.

When the GHG Intensity indicator is examined (it measures the amount of greenhouse gas produced per unit of economic activity) it becomes apparent that Canada has actually made significant progress in this area. The GHG intensity of Canadian economic activity has dropped by 18 per cent since 1990, a reduction greater than that achieved in several other industrialized economies including Japan and Italy.

What this statistic means is that each dollar of economic activity that occurs in Canada today produces significantly less greenhouse gases than a dollar of economic activity in 1990, even with inflation taken into account.

And more good news: Canada’s environmental record is strong and improving in other areas as well, including forest conservation and ecosystem preservation.

Although the children may have been convinced by radical environmentalists that we are polluting the earth and overusing its resources, the evidence strongly suggests that this is not the case. These trends suggest that our children are likely to inherit a natural environment that is cleaner and greener than the one we live in today.

It’s time for the kids, and the grown-ups, to stop fearing the environmental bogeyman under the bed and instead recognize the significant and steady progress that we are making towards environmental sustainability.