Canadians, Not Exactly Stewards of the Earth

When I lived in Hawaii, a nurse asked me, “how could you leave such a beautiful country like Canada?” Her question was spot-on. Canada is a vast land of striking scenery and resources. But are we developing the latter in a responsible manner in a way that reflects a forgotten truth:  there is no clear boundary between economy and environment? The Conference Board of Canada website gives a good overview of how well Canada is doing environmentally relative to 16 other industrial countries, but overall the report is far from stellar.

Forest in Parc Nationale d'Oka, in Quebec,  near Montreal. --photograph by the author
Forest in Parc Nationale d’Oka, in Quebec, near Montreal. –photograph by the author

Luckily, since 2005, 348 million hectares or 34% of our country’s land were maintained as forest. But it would have been desirable to have increased the amount of wooded areas to offset some of our carbon dioxide emissions in the manner that Norway, Italy and Ireland have. Canada is third in per capita  greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—only the United States and Australia are bigger polluters. In our defense, our cold climate and large distances between cities does not help matters. And things could have been worse if we were not rich in hydroelectricity, which is used to generate 58% of our electricity; fossil fuels only supply 23% of our energy needs. But there’s a catch. We are far from leading the way in sustainable energy development because of a huge industrial and government commitment to developing the world’s 3rd largest oil reserves. In world markets, we are already currently producing 4.5 % of the world’s oil , fifth place among nations, even though we account for only 0.5% of the planet’s population.

Relative to other countries, threatened terrestrial species are not doing as badly as elsewhere, and we have a federal biodiversity action plan in place. But the number of species at risk is still increasing. Furthermore, with regard to change in the Marine Trophic Index, Canada ranks last. The sustainability of its fish resources has been in constant decline since the 1970s.

Less pressured by a low population density, we have become increasingly complacent and irresponsible with municipal waste. Canada is dead last in that department too, producing, on a per capita basis, even more trash than the Americans.  wasteOur per capita release of nitrogen oxides, which is again elevated partly due to the large distances covered by our vehicles, place us 2nd-last among 17 peer countries.The ensuing smog from these compounds has been less intense than it had been in 1970, but we have not kept pace with other countries’ emission standards. Similarly, we are the worst emitters of volatile organic compounds(VOC) from cleaning products, paints, printing inks and personal care products.

According to a 2014 Angus Reid poll, when asked what factor should take greater priority in shaping this country’s energy policy, the majority of Canadians (58 per cent) say protecting the environment is most important. Only 42 per cent want to encourage economic growth above everything else. Interestingly, of all Canadian political parties, the one least interested in environmental matters gained 40% of the popular vote in the last election. But that was enough to form a majority in parliament and to prevent the country from doing something about its embarrassing record.

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