The Environment is the foundation upon which human societies are built and the source of our sustained wellbeing. On a broader level, environmental protection involves the prevention of waste and damage while revitalizing our ecosystems and working towards the sustainability of all of our resources.
The Environment is the basis for our health, our communities, and our economy. Despite its fundamental importance to human existence and the natural resource wealth it provides to Canada, we often fail to appreciate the various ecosystem services provided by nature that sustain human wellbeing. Indeed, how great is our wellbeing if we cannot breathe the air or drink the water?
Environmental progress is flatlining
Of all the domains in the CIW framework, only the Environment and Leisure and Culture showed declines over the 21-year period beginning in 1994. Despite some modest improvements after 2003, the Environment domain continues to struggle in the face of numerous pressures. Canada’s ecological footprint remains among the largest in the world. We have not made a dent in smog levels and are nowhere near meeting our greenhouse gas emissions targets. Individual Canadians are reducing their residential consumption but decisive action with greater impact is urgently needed.
Our ecological footprint is massive — and unchanged
Canada has the world’s 4th largest Ecological Footprint per capita. The Ecological Footprint measures human demand on the earth’s ecosystems. Canada’s has fluctuated over the years, and by 2014, remains at approximately the same level as 1994. Even though this relative stability reflects variations in our consumption and production efficiency, our bio capacity — the ecosystem’s ability to produce useful biological materials and to absorb carbon dioxide emissions — has been steadily dropping over the same time period.15
Greenhouse gas emissions remain high
We are nowhere near our emissions targets. Canada is far from the trajectory it needs to reduce emissions to a rate that avoids dangerous climate change. Overall, absolute GHG emissions increased by 11.7% from 1994 to 2014, despite a significant decrease in 2009. The rise in GHG emissions since 2009 are especially troubling given Canada’s commitment to reach its Copenhagen target of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. More positively, GHG emissions per capita have remained largely unchanged since 2009.
Three industries produce 60% of Canada’s GHGs. By 2013, 60% of the total GHG emissions in Canada were produced by three sectors: fossil fuel industries (26%), transportation (23%), and electricity production via utilities (11%), which has actually fallen by over 7% since 1990.16
Canada remains focused on hydrocarbon energy production
There has been an overall increase of 15.6% in primary energy production from 1994 to 2014. However, virtually all of the growth has come through the exploitation of non-renewable fossil fuels, which make up some 86% of the primary energy available to us. Overall production might have been even greater but for the decline following the 2008 recession, and even greater reductions have occurred after 2014 with the drop in oil prices. Electricity from wind, solar, and tidal sources represented less than 0.5% of overall energy generation.
Residential use of energy declined by almost 20%.
Canadian households are doing their part by helping to reduce the impact on the environment. Even though where people live has an effect on household energy consumption, by 2011, 82% of Canadians were taking measures to reduce energy consumption, such as using programmable thermostats and clotheslines or drying racks, installing more efficient heating and cooling systems, upgrading a home’s insulation, and re- caulking windows and doors.17
Stocks of viable metal reserves have fallen dramatically since 1994. Metals provide the foundation for technology, and the decline in reserves signals not just a threat to our economy, but to many aspects of our lives. The over 40% decline in reserves of specific metals (such as copper, nickel, lead, zinc, and gold) after 1994 indicates that our ability to reuse or recycle rather than dispose of the products in which metals are found has not kept pace with their extraction.
Agriculture in Canada is evolving as farmland shrinks
The total land base in Canada devoted to farmland fell by 7.0% between 1994 and 2014. With increasing urbanization and development putting strains on land available for agriculture, farming has become more resilient. Even as the amount of farmland decreases, the average size of farms is increasing as consolidation occurs — either by choice or by necessity — in response to market forces.
Fresh water yields and air quality fluctuate over the years
Our stock of fresh water is vulnerable to climate change. Over the entire time period from 1994 to 2014, the availability of fresh water in southern Canada is unchanged, but there have been dramatic annual fluctuations. We have seen decreases in fresh water yields of almost 20% in one year followed by increases of up to 15% in subsequent years. Fluctuations are increasingly linked to climate change and its effect on the water cycle, which in turn has an impact on our freshwater supply.
Smog levels have not improved. Air quality as reflected in ground-level ozone — or smog — has fluctuated over the years and remains at 1994 levels. However, it still represents a potential problem for the respiratory health of Canadians and can contribute to crop damage.
A sustainable environment is linked very closely to our physical and mental health and to Community Vitality. As climate change unleashes increasingly damaging storms, droughts, fires, and other events, it threatens critical infrastructure and social networks18. It can affect our food, the air, and our water supply. It is also one of the greatest threats to our economy, and thus, to our Living Standards.
The Environment domain paints a picture of Canada’s environment that is largely deteriorating. Some aspects are improving, but most are degrading. The choices we make, especially in facing the challenge of climate change, in terms of protecting, managing, and/or restoring these aspects of the environment will dictate not only the state of our lands and waters, but also will play a significant role in determining our wellbeing as Canadians. Recent plans announced by the federal government in the fall of 2016 to establish a Pan-Canadian framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the pricing of carbon19 reflects the leadership we need not only for addressing climate change, but also for recognizing how such action can stimulate innovation, build cleaner transportation systems and infrastructure, and create jobs in a greener economy. Canadians expect and understand the need for such leadership, and endorse it.20
While Canada is not a country in crisis, there are warning signs that not all is well when it comes to the environment and our wellbeing. Given that there is an increasingly large global population with a voracious and growing demand for our natural capital, it is critical that policy makers assess the consequences of how we use the environment to better the wellbeing of all Canadians.
Environment indicators tracked 1994 to 2014
- Ecological Footprint
- Absolute greenhouse gas emissions (megatonnes of CO2 per year)
- Ground level ozone (population weighted in parts per billion)
- Primary energy production (petajoules)
- Viable Metal Reserves Index
- Residential energy use
- Total farm land (hectares)
- Annual water yield in southern Canada (km3)