Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

22 Mar 2013

Is Canada on a sustainable path?

Posted by Michael Keating

The average Canadian is now richer and lives longer than ever before, but the lifestyles, health and economic development of people in Canada and all countries depend on a wide range of ecological goods and services. These include climate regulation, food, fish and timber production, provision of clean air and water, flood control, soil formation and fertility, pollination and biodiversity. Our environment also provides for spiritual, recreational and cultural needs.

Canada faces many environmental challenges

Climate change is the dominant environmental issue of our times. The north is warming faster than the equator. Canada is already seeing evidence of climate change, in the retreat of ice cover in the Arctic, lower Great Lakes levels, and changes in plant and animal distribution as species migrate northward. More heat waves, forest fires, storm-surge flooding, coastal erosion and other hazards are consistent with observed climate trends.

Many air pollutants have been reduced, but smog persists in and around heavily populated areas. According to the Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators, the national ground-level ozone exposure increased in central Canada over the past two decades. This affects human health and crops.

In Canada as in many industrialized countries, a reduction in forested area has been reversed by more intensive replanting, but the type of forest continues to change as old forests are harvested and replaced by tree farms. These are generally monoculture plantations of even age, and will be harvested before they become old. The forest industry faces future supply problems as climate change leads to changes in the trees and worsens insect infestations and fire risks.

Canada is water rich, but the supplies are unevenly distributed, and subject to variability particularly with climate change. BC glaciers are retreating at a fastest rate in the last 8,000 years. Smaller glaciers and reduced snowpack in the western mountains threaten water supplies for homes, farms and industries across the Prairies. In the Arctic, the ice is thinning, making travel more hazardous, and structures are sinking as the permafrost melts. Species such as the polar bear are put at risk. The receding Arctic ice opens the region to shipping and oil drilling, bringing risks of more pollution, including oil spills that may be impossible to clean up.

In the Great Lakes, a combination of pollution and invasive species has led to a very unstable situation. Lake levels are falling, and climate change has been identified as a factor. Lake Winnipeg, sometimes called Canada’s sixth Great Lake, is suffering from severe algal growth because of farm fertilizer runoff in the west.

In Canada over the past century a number of fisheries in the Atlantic, Pacific, Great Lakes and elsewhere have declined or collapsed because of overfishing, habitat destruction and competition from invasive species. This led to economic hardship accompanied by personal suffering and dislocation of families forced to move in search of new work. Fisheries management plans seek to stabilize catches, but periodic changes in fisheries cycles make it difficult to maintain stable fisheries.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada lists 668 wildlife species at risk, including 297 endangered, 159 threatened, 190 of special concern, and 22 extirpated (no longer found in the wild in Canada). In addition there are 15 wildlife species that are extinct.


What is being done?

Canada has made considerable progress in dealing with a number of environmental issues. The country was a pioneer in introducing environmental assessments in the 1970s, with the concept of anticipate and prevent rather than react and cure.

After paying huge cleanup costs for pollution, a number of industry leaders acknowledged that it was far cheaper to changes processes or use anti-pollution equipment.

A number of governments and industries have cleaned up many sources of air and water pollution, regulated a number of harmful chemicals, better managed forests, created parks, and protected and restored a number of endangered species.

In the 1980s Canada was a leader in getting controls both on acid rain and on chemicals that destroy the planet’s protective ozone layer. It has set more conservative quotas in east and west coast fisheries. It signed agreements on pollution controls in the Great Lakes, and spent billions on pollution reduction and cleanups.

The peregrine falcon has been successfully reintroduced into eastern Canada, following the ban of a number of pesticides, and the swift fox is being brought back to the western Canadian plains.

However, a number of pollutants travel thousands of kilometres on air and water currents and end up in our environment. In recent years, researchers have discovered that chemicals not classified as toxic pose a risk to health.

Since Canada’s first park was created in 1885, about 10 per cent of the country has been protected, but only 0.5 per cent of Canada’s oceans are marine protected areas.

Recycling is now prevalent in much of the country. Many of the things we buy are more energy efficient, recyclable and made with less toxic materials.


Difficult trends

Canada’s population, at about 35 million, is small compared to many countries, but Canadians are using resources and turning them into waste at a much higher rate than the global average.

Canada has the 8th highest ecological footprint per capita of 130 countries, according to World Wildlife Fund Canada. It says Canada’s use of the world’s biological productivity is 2.5 times the global average.

On a per capita basis, Canadians rank among the highest in energy consumption, water use and greenhouse gas emissions. Fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas, provide two-thirds of Canada’s energy consumption, followed by hydroelectricity and nuclear. Although there have been important increases in alternative energy, such as solar, wind, geothermal and biomass, it still supplies less than five per cent of the country’s demand. Much of our energy focus has been on further development of the oil sands, which will release even more greenhouse gases at a time when the country is committed to reducing its emissions.

Cars are far cleaner and more fuel efficient. However there are more cars on the roads every year.

People are buying ever more electronic equipment, some of which consumes large amounts of electricity.

We have regulated a large number of obviously toxic substances, such as DDT, PCBs, mercury, lead and asbestos, but we are discovering that many other substances in the environment are harmful in less direct ways, and need regulation.

Over the years, Canada has made progress toward environmental sustainability on some fronts, but is slipping on others.

A UN Environment Programme report on the global environment has commented on inadequate progress in countries. It found progress in tackling some relatively straightforward problems, such as local air and water pollution in some parts of the world. But, it added that the world has yet to cross the threshold of sustained action and staying power to reverse an overall environmental decline. Delay worsens the problems, and increases their complexity and cost.

Comments are closed.