Environmental protection: Where Canada stands

| September 27, 2015 | 0 Comments
Canada is No. 9 in the planet’s top 10 carbon emitters. The Alberta oilsands are often raised by foreign governments when talking about Canada’s environmental policies. (Photo: © Alan Gignoux | Dreamstime.com)

Canada is No. 9 in the planet’s top 10 carbon emitters. The Alberta oilsands are often raised by foreign governments when talking about Canada’s environmental policies. (Photo: © Alan Gignoux | Dreamstime.com)

Canada enjoys an embarrassment of riches that make for a safe and healthy life for most of its citizens. The country prides itself on its health care and social systems, enjoys clean air and water and reaps the benefits of abundant natural resources. Canada’s management of these resources placed it 24th out of 178 countries on the 2014 Environmental Performance Index, with an overall score of 73.14, compared to the highest-rated country, Switzerland, which had a score of 87.67. Scoring is out of 100; meeting a target yields a perfect score. A low score indicates that “a country may be further from achieving a predefined indicator target.”
The EPI is a joint research project from Yale and Columbia universities with the World Economic Forum. Successor to the Environmental Sustainability Index (2002-2005), the index exists to support government decision-making and measures countries’ proximity to targets within two core objectives: environmental health (protection of human health from environmental harm) and ecosystem vitality (ecosystem protection and resource management) with nine environmental indicators.

The Alliance for Zero Extinction, with its worldwide membership of 100 environmental NGOs, has included Canada's whooping crane, above, and marmot on its list. (Photo: © Kent Ellington | Dreamstime.com)

The Alliance for Zero Extinction, with its worldwide membership of 100 environmental NGOs, has included Canada’s whooping crane, above, and marmot on its list. (Photo: © Kent Ellington | Dreamstime.com)

Targets are defined by national and international policy goals or scientific thresholds established by diverse bodies such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines and the United Nations’ Resolution 64/292 (the right to water and sanitation). Data are self-reported and from a range of sources including the UN, the WHO, the United Nations Children’s Fund, The World Bank, the World Resources Institute and the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas.
The rankings seem a bit of a hodgepodge. There is no single authority on the body of issues examined, some countries are not included in some indicators or categories, rankings are not explained for each indicator, and targets used may not be the goals identified in national environmental policies. The climate and energy category is unique; indicators do not measure proximity to a target, but instead a “global relative position” because there are no globally agreed-upon targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Canada’s score on environmental health
Canada scored 100, along with many industrialized countries, in the category of health impacts, which uses child mortality between ages one and five to indicate the state of the environment. This indicator may seem arbitrary; however, the leading causes of preventable child deaths — pneumonia and diarrhea — are linked directly to environmental conditions. Pneumonia is aggravated by household and outdoor air pollution, and diarrhea can be triggered by poor sanitation and limited access to clean drinking water.
Canada also achieved high scores for air quality (97.85, ranked 28th) and water and sanitation (95.9, ranked 28th). The air quality category gauges the percentage of the population that burns solid fuel for cooking and the attendant household air quality. It measures exposure, and percentage of population exposed, to particulate matter fine enough to lodge in blood and lung tissue (PM2.5). Canada’s Air Quality Standards (established in 2013) include a long-term target to reduce annual PM2.5 levels from 10 µg/m³ (micrograms/cubic metre) of air in 2015 to 8.8 µg/m³ by 2020.
The water and sanitation category measures the proportion of the population with access to a source of improved drinking water — water that has been treated to remove contaminants, particularly fecal contamination. It also measures the proportion of the population with access to improved sanitation — a system that hygienically separates human excreta from human contact. Although Canada has significant water resources and Canadians have clean drinking water, Canadian communities dump more than 150 billion litres of sewage into waterways annually. Canada’s wastewater systems effluent regulations (established in 2012; revised in 2015) set standards effective Jan. 1, 2015 for mandatory minimum effluent quality (carbonaceous biochemical oxygen demand of <25 µg/L and total suspended solids <25 µg/L). It’s too soon to determine the effect of the regulations, which are established under the Fisheries Act. More on that later.

Ecosystem vitality
The water resources category tracks how countries treat wastewater from households and industry before its return to the environment. Wastewater comprises domestic black water from toilets, grey water from all other household sources and industrial wastewater that may contain chemical contaminants. Water treatment is vital for the health of humans and aquatic systems. Canada, which scored 80.42, ranking 20th, has more than 3,500 wastewater facilities, all mandated to meet the targets of the wastewater systems effluent regulations; how well we meet its targets should be considered in the 2016 EPI.
Biodiversity and habitat, a category in which Canada scored 58.4, ranking 97th, measures critical habitat protection, marine protected areas and terrestrial protected areas by national and global biome weights. This indicator measures the percentage of sites with partial or complete protection as identified by the Alliance for Zero Extinction. The alliance works with various organizations to identify and safeguard places that are the sole site of a species (flora and fauna) evaluated as endangered or critically endangered; there are two such species in Canada — whooping crane and marmot.
Canada’s Species at Risk Act identifies 510 terrestrial and aquatic species (flora and fauna) as endangered, threatened, of special concern or extirpated. By May 2014, Environment Canada had established recovery strategies or management plans for 277 species. Of those, 94 have population targets to be met by 2020. Progress reports of population trends reveal that, of the 94 species, 41 are on track to meet targets, 30 are not, and seven show indications of both improvement and decline. The remaining 16 species provide insufficient data to identify trends. This category is challenging to assess on a biennial cycle; recovery takes decades and observations of rare species are difficult to make.

Forestry is included as a factor in the EPI’s assessment of the top 10 carbon emitters. (Photo: © Bounder32h | Dreamstime.com)

Forestry is included as a factor in the EPI’s assessment of the top 10 carbon emitters. (Photo: © Bounder32h | Dreamstime.com)

The EPI’s fisheries category assesses fishing habits, including trawling and dredging, and measures the percentage of a country’s total catch comprising species categorized as overexploited or collapsed. Incomplete/inconsistent reporting, deliberate underreporting and poor fisheries monitoring are common; the index therefore penalizes 57 countries by assigning the lowest observed indicator scores for fish stocks and coastal shelf fishing pressure indicators. Canada scored 21.54, its second-lowest score,  ranking 71st.
It is a common trope to use John Cabot and Canada’s cod fishery to illustrate how human activity affects ecosystems. Cabot’s 1497 description of cod stocks in the Grand Banks as so thick that a person “could walk across their backs” launched the North West Atlantic fishery, which became the mainstay of Atlantic Canada.
The annual catch of cod from 1850-1950 was roughly 227,000 tonnes, using traditional methods such as gill nets and jigging from a dory. Aggressive trawling by international factory ships saw substantially higher yields; in 1968, the catch was 735,000 tonnes. The cod could not replenish their numbers to that level and by 1975 the annual catch was 300,000 tonnes. Foreign factory ships were forced out of prime fishing grounds in 1977 when Canada and the U.S. extended their fisheries jurisdiction to 200 nautical miles (370 km). Canadian factory ships replaced foreign ships, trawling 250,000 tonnes annually by 1984, hauling up spawning fish, fry, other species and the cod’s food source, thereby destabilizing the entire ecosystem.
Despite warnings from inshore fishermen and scientists, the government delayed establishing a moratorium on fishing in the Grand Banks until 1992. The cod fishery collapsed, with northern cod on the brink of commercial extinction, and 30,000 jobs were lost. Canada’s Atlantic salmon fishery has not fared better; it was closed progressively, beginning in the 1980s, with complete closure in 2000. Atlantic salmon remains a species at risk.

Fisheries Act amendment weakens habitat protection
Canada’s Fisheries Act, first enacted in 1868, regulates its fisheries. Among its 17 amendments was section 35, in 1976, prohibiting “harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat.” The act’s 2013 amendment added a subsection that changed its focus to protect “the productivity of recreational, commercial and Aboriginal fisheries,” eliminating explicit references to fish habitat; instead, the new prohibition protects against “serious harm to fish.”
While section 35 had never established a blanket prohibition against destroying fish habitat, the new subsection actually weakens the prohibition by granting sole discretion to the fisheries minister, who can authorize the destruction or disruption of fish habitat. Section 35 does not provide habitat protection for at-risk species or prevent habitat destruction caused by practices such as bottom trawling. Effectively, the Fisheries Act does not inform efforts to protect fish habitat and cannot legally protect the habitat of endangered or threatened aquatic species per the Species at Risk Act.
The EPI’s forests category measures the percentage of change in forest cover from 2000-2012 in areas with more than 50 percent tree cover. The rating considers forest loss, including deforestation; reforestation; and afforestation — conversion of bare or cultivated land into forest. Canada received its lowest score in this category, 16.64, and its second-lowest ranking, 104th.
Forests are crucial for sustaining life on Earth, filtering air and water, moderating climate, providing wildlife habitat and stabilizing soil. They are part of the carbon cycle, storing large amounts of carbon in vegetation and soil, which is important since human activity releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Earth’s atmosphere now contains 42 percent more carbon dioxide than it did before the industrial era. Forest/wooded land covers 40 percent of Canada’s land mass; our forest cover is 30 percent of the world’s boreal forest and 10 percent of the world’s forest cover overall.
The EPI’s target is “zero for change in forest cover” and it uses data compiled by the University of Maryland’s Global Forest Change project and Google Earth, which maps changes in forest cover using archived Landsat 7 images. This new process replaces data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Forest Resource Assessment (FRA). The EPI, acknowledging the difficulty of assessing this indicator, notes that the new measure is “far from perfect.”
Discrepancies between FRA statistics and satellite estimates are due to inconsistent reporting; varying definitions among nations of “forested land,” often defined by land use with change reported as net value; and the inability of data to differentiate between reforestation and afforestation, which the EPI states may have “no direct biophysical function.” For example, Malaysia receives credit from the FRA for reforestation for its palm oil plantations, even though plantations replace natural growth forests, and for afforestation, even though plantations are planted in useful grasslands.
By contrast, in Canada, natural disturbances such as insect infestation and wildfires affect more forest annually than harvesting and regeneration. Most harvesting in Canada happens under provincial jurisdiction, which specifies the annual allowable cut on particular Crown lands over a certain number of years. Provincial laws require all areas harvested on provincial Crown land to be regenerated by natural or artificial means, or a combination of the two. Less than half of harvested areas in Canada regenerate naturally; artificial regeneration ensures a greater likelihood of desirable species composition and controls density. Harvest levels have been dropping since 2005 with the decline of the forest products industry and, concomitant with that, the area of artificially regenerated land has declined.

In the agriculture category, Canada scored 62.52, ranking 105th in the world — its lowest ranking. The category looks at agricultural subsidies and legislation governing chemical use, among other things, including whether a country limits or bans pesticides. (Photo: © Dbukach | Dreamstime.com)

In the agriculture category, Canada scored 62.52, ranking 105th in the world — its lowest ranking. The category looks at agricultural subsidies and legislation governing chemical use, among other things, including whether a country limits or bans pesticides. (Photo: © Dbukach | Dreamstime.com)

Canada ranks poorly on regulating farm chemical use
In the agriculture category, Canada scored 62.52, ranking 105th in the world — its lowest ranking. The category assesses the degree of pressure exerted by subsidizing agriculture and the status of legislation governing chemicals included under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. The assessment of pesticide regulation also rates the degree to which countries have followed through on limiting or banning pesticides.
The EPI refers to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which states that agricultural subsidies increase environmental pressures by intensifying chemical use, expanding farmland into sensitive areas and overexploiting resources, including water and soil nutrients. The OECD defines subsidies as benefits given to businesses or individuals by government policy that raises revenue or reduces cost and thus “affects production, consumption, trade, income, and the environment.”
Canada scored 29 out of 100 on the agricultural subsidies indicator. By comparison with other OECD countries, such as Japan, South Korea, Norway, Switzerland and Iceland, where government support comprises one half to two thirds of farmers’ income, Canada is not generous to its farmers. Canada subsidizes 14 percent of gross farm receipts; the average among OECD countries is 18 percent. The OECD notes that some countries have introduced new agriculture policy, citing Canada’s Growing Forward 2, a five-year (2013-2018) federal/provincial/territorial framework that emphasizes longer-term investments to improve productivity and sustainability, but maintains supply-management schemes.
Canada scored 96 out of 100 on the pesticide regulation index. Canada is a signatory of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, in force since 2004, which seeks to eliminate or regulate the “dirty dozen” persistent organic pollutants. Canada is keenly interested in implementing the convention to reduce exposure to major foreign sources of pollutants. The importance of regulating pesticides is evident in two cases of fish kills by pesticide runoff in P.E.I., for which one farmer was found guilty and charged under the Fisheries Act. Thousands of fish, including salmon, died. Persistent organic pollutants tend to migrate long distances and accumulate in northern climates, making Canada subject to these pollutants and northern inhabitants at particular risk.

Canada is No. 9 of world’s Top-10 carbon emitters
The climate and energy category assesses access to energy, relative to countries’ economic development and ability “to reduce the intensity of carbon emissions over time.” It takes into account economic and industrial development. The EPI report applies new indicators in this category that account for differing economic and industrial status among countries. The category is divided further into three classifications, defined by per-capita gross national income (GNI/capita), and countries are ranked against similar countries, not the full complement of 178. Those countries with little industry (problematically referred to as “least developed countries”) typically emit little carbon dioxide and “get a pass” in this category, says Jason Schwartz, EPI spokesman. Wealthy countries (measured by GNI/capita > US$12,616) are held accountable for climate mitigation. Canada scored 59.85, ranking 41st.
Canada is among the world’s top 10 carbon emitters, which produce 68.5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, including land-use change and forestry, elements not always included in carbon dioxide emission assessments (Canada ranked 9th; China is the worst emitter). The EPI report notes that greenhouse gas emissions may reflect the size of a country’s economy; thus, scoring countries solely on absolute emissions unintentionally rewards smaller countries or those without industry-based economies.
It is not surprising that Canada, geographically vast, cold, with a resource-based economy, is among the top 10. Even so, with 57 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions comprising carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel combustion, Canada represents less than 2 percent of global emissions, of which the oil and gas sector accounts for 25 percent and transportation 23 percent.
Environment Canada reports a “sector-by-sector regulatory approach” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, banning the construction of coal-fired electricity generating facilities, and setting goals for greenhouse gas reduction by 2025. (Ontario is the first industrial region in North America to eliminate coal-fired electricity.) Yet, the federal government lacks a workable strategy to promote existing successful provincial/municipal policies and has moved slowly to reduce carbon pollution.
The EPI report is, by its own admission, a flawed document with less-than-ideal approaches to measuring environmental impacts, gaps in its data, and lack of participation by some countries or failure to report in some categories. The bodies that establish targets are unclear in some areas, so their validity may be questioned. However, as a stimulus for debate about climate change and international responsibilities, the EPI makes a significant contribution.
In Canada, it should show its citizens that they mustn’t be complacent about the environment, and their roles in preserving it, or the policies that should protect it. In another survey, the Reputation Institute reported in July that Canada holds top spot in a survey of 55 nations to determine the one with the best reputation. Survey respondents from North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia were most likely to want to live in or visit Canada, in large part because of its appealing environment.

Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is an Alberta writer.

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Laura Neilson Bonikowsky is an Alberta writer.

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