January 9, 2006

New review of core environmental indicators raises concerns about sustainability, economic performance

The first annual report on Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators shows a deteriorating trend in both air quality and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions between 1990 and 2003. Results for a third indicator, freshwater quality, indicate that pollutant guidelines for aquatic life are being exceeded at least occasionally at most of a selected number of monitoring sites across the country.

The report, prepared by Environment Canada, Statistics Canada and Health Canada, brings these core environmental indicators together for the first time in a single document. In doing so, it also raises concerns about Canada's environmental sustainability, the health and well-being of its citizens and the nation's economic performance.

These three new national indicators have been established by the federal government in response to a 2003 recommendation by the National Round Table on Environment and Economy (NRTEE) calling for a small, easily understood set of environmental and sustainable development indicators. They are intended to provide more regular and reliable information on the state of Canada's environment and how it is linked with human activities, and to serve as annual measuring sticks by which governments and the public can track progress toward cleaner water, cleaner air and lower GHG emissions.

The water quality indicator documents the state of freshwater quality for aquatic life at selected sites nationwide, mainly in southern Canada. This marks the first time that an index to measure water quality - assembled from various federal, provincial and joint monitoring programs - has been applied systematically across the country. Consequently, a longer-term trend analysis for this indicator is not yet available.

The air quality indicator reports national and regional trends in ground-level ozone, a key component of smog. Drawn from a well-established national network of monitoring sites, it differs from existing indicators by weighting the results to reflect human population exposure.

The GHG indicator describes the trend in emissions and the contribution to emissions from energy production, energy consumption and other factors. It is the best-developed of the three indicators, coming directly from the inventory developed by Environment Canada in response to international climate change requirements.

For each indicator, the report presents the latest status, along with a review of the trends over time for the air quality and GHG indicators. It offers interpretations of what the indicator trends mean, describes plans for future improvements, and analyzes the links between the indicators.

There are three fundamental connections linking the indicators, says the report. First, some of the same substances are involved. Second, some of the same economic forces drive changes in the indicators. And third, the indicators reflect stresses in the same regions of the country.

The air quality indicator presents a picture of urban air quality under pressure, the national concentration of ground-level ozone having risen by 16% between 1990 and 2003. The highest levels in 2003 (greater than 50 parts per billion) were all recorded at stations in southern Ontario; concentrations in this region also showed the fastest growth from 1990 to 2003. At the same time, however, ground-level ozone is also a concern in rural areas, particularly those affected by long-range transport of airborne pollutants. Some stations in rural areas across the country reported concentrations of 40 to 50 ppb.

This indicator is adjusted for the number of people living near air quality monitoring stations. It uses a seasonal average to account for long-term health effects. Future reports will address other air pollutants such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5), sulfur oxides and carbon monoxide. Among the improvements planned for the air quality indicator are new monitoring stations and new equipment to enhance pollutant reporting at existing stations.

The report reconfirms the already well-documented increase in Canada's GHG emissions. This indicator, based on data compiled by Environment Canada, shows that GHG emissions reached an estimated 740 megatonnes (MT) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), an increase of 24% from 1990 to 2003, and in 2003 were 32% above the target set for Canada by the Kyoto Protocol during the initial 2008 to 2012 compliance period.

Canada's size, low population density, northern climate and resource-based economy combine to make it one of the world's highest per-capita GHG emitters, with emissions per person having risen 9% from 1990 to reach 23 tonnes per person in 2003. Alberta and Ontario had the highest GHG emissions of all provinces in 2003. Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Alberta had the highest percentage increases in emissions compared with 1990.

At the same time, however, Canada's emissions per unit of economic activity (as measured by gross domestic product) dropped 13% from 1990 to 2003. This decline is attributed partly to efficiency improvements in the energy sector.

The overall increase in emissions was driven by three categories of activity: road transportation, thermal-electric power generation and fossil fuel production. Energy production and consumption accounted for 81% of total Canadian GHG emissions in 2003 and 91% of the growth in emissions from 1990 to 2003.

Road transportation accounted for 19% of total emissions in 2003 and 23% of the growth in emissions from 1990. In part, this reflects a shift in the types of vehicles used for personal transportation from automobiles to vans, sport utility vehicles and light-duty trucks. These heavier vehicles emit on average 40% more GHGs per kilometre than do automobiles.

The emissions from thermal-electric power generation accounted for 18% of total emissions in 2003 and 27% of the growth from 1990. This growth was driven by the rising demand for electricity and the relative increase in the use of fossil fuels, particularly coal, for electricity generation.

Fossil fuel production accounted for 10% of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2003 and 13% of the growth since 1990. Between 1990 and 2003, exports of crude oil increased nearly six-fold, while exports of natural gas more than doubled. These increases explain about one-half of the total emissions increase for this category.

The report notes that emissions from industrial processes declined by 4% between 1990 and 2003, making this the only sector with lower estimated emissions. Technological changes at several major facilities contributed to this reduction.

A number of measures are being planned to improve the GHG emissions inventory, which will have a beneficial impact on the quality of the GHG indicator. Among the areas targeted for improvement are: refined estimates in the energy sector for source such as the bitumen industry and upstream oil and gas; upgraded estimation models for transportation emissions; better estimates of methane emissions from landfills; and investigation of additional sources from the minerals sector.

The new freshwater quality indicator provides a preliminary assessment of surface freshwater quality with respect to protecting aquatic life such as plants, invertebrates and fish. It is based on data gathered from 2001 to 2003 at 343 selected monitoring sites across the country. It does not assess the quality of water for human consumption. The summary also does not include the Great Lakes, which were measured using a different sampling approach.

At 44% of the selected sites, water quality was rated as "excellent" or "good," i.e., it rarely failed to meet water quality guidelines that set recommended limits for pollutant levels. Among the remaining sites, 31% were rated as "fair," showing occasional exceedances of guidelines occasionally. About 25% were rated as "marginal" or "poor," i.e., exceeding the guidelines often or by a considerable margin. The report notes that at least 100,000 tonnes of toxic pollutants were directly discharged to Canada's surface waters in 2003.

Almost all of the selected monitoring sites were in southern Canada, typically in places where water quality has been a concern. Water quality experts most frequently cited urban development and agricultural activities as key potential causes of degraded water quality. Pulp and paper facilities, mines (including oil sands), forestry, acid rain, and dams were also considered important stressors at some sites.

The preliminary water quality indicator will be revised and expanded in future reports. The ideal indicator, says the report, would permit managers to separate the effects of natural and human-caused changes in water quality. Planned improvements will be made to enhance the scope of monitoring activities, enlarging the network to broaden the types of water bodies covered. The suitability of water bodies as sources of drinking water will be built into the water quality indicator in the future, as well as other major economic and social uses of water, including agriculture and recreation.

Future reports will also strengthen the links between the environmental indicators and socio-economic information. For example, measuring the efficiency of energy use is important because of the multiple benefits, including lower economic cost, reduced air pollution and acid precipitation, and lower GHG emissions. The environmental sustainability indicator reports will be issued annually, reflecting continuous improvements in the indicators themselves as well as the analyses of trends.

The Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators report may be viewed on the Statistics Canada Web site, www.statcan.ca (reference No 16-251-XIE), along with related background material. More information is also available from the Information Officer, Environment Accounts and Statistics Division, 613/951-0297, FAX 613/951-0634, E-mail environ@statcan.ca.

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