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Canada environmental laggard: Conference Board report

Country ranks 15th among 17 countries in The Conference Board of Canada’s ranking.


OTTAWA—Canada throws away more garbage per capita than any other country in the developed world. That, combined with heavy use of energy and water, gives the country a C grade and a ranking of 15th out of 17 countries in The Conference Board of Canada’s How Canada Performs-Environment ranking.

“Our large land mass, cold climate and resource-intensive economy make us less likely to rank highly on some indicators of environmental sustainability, but many of our poor results are based on our inefficient use of our resources,” said Len Coad, director, director, energy, environment and technology policy. “Canada must promote economic growth without further degrading the environment. Encouraging more sustainable consumption is crucial to achieve that objective.”

A 15th-place ranking, the same as in 2009, puts Canada ahead of Australia and the US. These three countries are similar: they are three largest countries in terms of land area, and they are the most resource-intensive economies in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Canada does show some excellent environmental results, said the Conference Board. Forests are generally well-protected and well-managed, while air quality has improved modestly and energy use per person is down and water quality is still high.

But several of Canada’s dismal results are due to overconsumption, the report said. In addition to generating the most waste, Canadians’ water withdrawals are nearly double the average of the other countries and are lower only than the US. And despite some improvement, Canadians are still the largest users of energy in the developed world.

Waste: In 2009, Canada generated 777 kilograms of municipal waste per capita—the 17 country average was 578 kg. Most of the waste goes to landfills or incinerators—of the 34 million tonnes generated in 2008, 26 million went there for disposal.

Energy: Canada’s energy use is a mixed picture. Canadian greenhouse gas emissions per capita in 2010 earned a D grade, likely because of increased exports of natural resources. Yet GHG emissions per capita fell by almost five percent between 1990 and 2010. Similarly Canada ranks 17th and last for the highest level of total energy consumption, but energy intensity decreased by almost 20 percent between 1990 and 2009.  Canada improved the share of its electricity produced by nuclear and renewable sources (mostly hydroelectric power) from 72 percent in 2000 to almost 78 percent in 2011.

Air quality: Canada’s performance on all four air quality indicators in this analysis improved between 1990 and 2009. Yet, compared to most other countries, Canada still emits higher levels per capita of nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Water: At a glance, the report said, Canada enjoys abundant and safe water. For example, Canada earns an A grade for water quality and ranks 4th on this indicator. Yet, regions such as the Prairies, southern Ontario and southern Quebec have water quality concerns, due in part to municipal water discharges (still, despite upgrades, one of the largest sources of pollution in Canadian waters). Furthermore, Canada’s water withdrawals are nearly double the 16-country average, and Canadians use more than nine times the water per capita that Denmark does.

Forest management: Canada is a top performer in its forestry practices. Canada gets an A grade and ranks second only to Japan on use of forest resources.

Biodiversity: Canada gets an A for maintaining threatened species. Nevertheless, the number of species at risk in Canada is increasing, although federal biodiversity action plans have been prepared for the agriculture and forestry sectors. In contrast, Canada’s Marine Trophic Index declined between 2000 and 2006, so Canada gets a D grade and ranks last on this indicator. The Marine Trophic Index is a measure of the extent to which a country is fishing for smaller species that are further down the food chain, so it measures the overall level of depletion of fish stocks.

How Canada Performs is a multi-year research program at The Conference Board of Canada to help leaders identify relative strengths and weaknesses in Canada’s socio-economic performance. The How Canada Performs website presents data and analysis on Canada’s performance compared to 16 peer countries in six performance categories: economy, innovation, environment, education and skills, health, and society.