October 24, 2005

Canada trails industrialized nations in key environmental performance indicators

An independent study by the Sustainable Planning Research Group at British Columbia's Simon Fraser University shows that Canada's environmental performance lags far behind other industrialized countries. The Maple Leaf in the OECD: Comparing Progress Toward Sustainability ranks Canada 28th out of the 30 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, based on 29 key environmental indicators. These include energy consumption, water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, air pollutants, pesticide use, and amount of protected areas.

"Our research found Canada's environmental performance to be surprisingly low," said study director Dr Thomas Gunton, who added that, "Canada lags behind in almost every performance indicator."

Canada's worst showings include: 28th in energy consumption, 26th in greenhouse gas emissions, 29th in water consumption, 27th in sulfur oxides pollution, and 30th in nuclear waste and carbon monoxide. While Canada fared better in recycling (ninth) and pesticide use (eighth), the nation did not place first in any of the 29 indicators. Moreover, the study found no improvement over the last decade: Canada's rank today - 28th out of 30 - is the same as it was in 1992.

The researchers evaluated 29 key environmental indicators using the most recent data verified and published by the OECD. The study was submitted to a peer review by experts in the private, public and non-governmental sector and the final report has just been released by the David Suzuki Foundation.

"Canadians expect more and they expect better. We should be outraged that we are among the worst in the industrialized world," said Dr Suzuki. He said the federal government should pass a National Sustainability Act, which would require Canada to create a plan for achieving sustainability. This plan would include specific targets for improving Canada's environmental performance, backed up by firm timelines and clear accountabilities.

"It is obvious that Canada will not improve its performance unless we enact specific legislation that lays out clear targets and timelines," Dr. Suzuki continued. "We are encouraged by stated commitments to sustainability by Prime Minister Martin and Environment Minister Dion, but statements must be followed up with action. We are hopeful the prime minister will take our advice and pass a National Sustainability Act."

Dr Gunton observed that a National Sustainability Act would provide the necessary legislative framework to ensure that Canada does not continue to fall further behind other industrialized countries. "With Canada's vast natural resources and knowledge base, we should be an environmental superstar," he said. "All we need now is leadership."

The study found Canada to be especially inefficient in energy and water consumption compared with other high-income OECD countries. Per-capita energy consumption is almost double the OECD average, says the report, and is far higher than that of other northern countries such as Norway and Sweden which have per-capita rates of energy use at least 25% lower than Canada.

Even worse is Canada's energy intensity, i.e. the amount of energy used per unit of gross domestic product (GDP); the nation was ranked 29th out of 30, just ahead of Iceland. Canada consumes 50% more energy per unit of GDP than the OECD average and more than twice as much as Ireland and Italy, the two most efficient nations, says the report.

Canada's water consumption is more than double the OECD average. The study found that Denmark, ranked first in water efficiency, uses one-tenth the Canadian level per capita.

One of the reasons for Canada's inefficiency, it notes, is the failure to levy charges directly proportional to the cost of using the environment. Canada's revenue from environmental charges amounts to approximately 1.3% of GDP, well below the OECD average of 2.5%. Only the U.S. has lower environmental charges, equivalent to 0.9% of GDP.

Canada's per-capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are more than double the OECD average and have increased by more than 20% over the 1990 reference year. The study ranked Canada 26th out of 29 in GHG emissions, although it placed fifth for energy production from renewable sources (e.g. hydro). Even so, says the report, Canada's share of electricity production from low-impact renewable sources is only 1.5%, half the OECD average. Denmark is a leader in this area as well, producing more than 18% of its electricity from renewable sources.

Per-capita emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOX) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), key components of smog, were found to be more than twice and almost three times, respectively, the OECD average, while per-capita carbon monoxide emissions were more than triple the OECD average. Although a government reduction strategy resulted in a 31% decline in per-capita emissions of sulfur oxides between 1992 and 2002, these emissions remain almost three times the OECD average, says the report.

Municipal waste reduction was one of the few areas in which Canada showed progress, ranking ninth out of 30 for having reduced per-capita generation by over 25%. Other OECD countries, on average, experienced a 9% increase. Canada is the largest generator of nuclear waste, however, producing more than six times the OECD average.

The study found little progress in municipal sewage treatment, with 72% of Canada's population served by treatment facilities, compared to 98% of the population of the Netherlands, the OECD leader. The report notes that three provincial capitals (Victoria, Halifax and St John's) still discharge raw sewage into receiving waters.

The report may be viewed on the David Suzuki Foundation Web site, www.davidsuzuki.org.

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