Canada: the Environmental Delinquent

This post originally appeared on the Carbon Talks blog.

If I want to know how much electricity I’m using, I can just look at my power bill. It will give me a number of kilowatt hours, the current price, and my total bill. But what it will not give me is any indication of how well I’m doing compared to other comparable electricity users; for that I’d need to call up my friends and do a quick survey, or push the utility to provide that kind of information on the bill.

The same applies at a country level. While we can, and do, track our national environmental performance, it is hard to put those numbers into context without appropriate comparison. A new environmental performance ranking by Conference Board of Canada does just that, and the results aren’t very impressive. Out of 17 so-called “peer countries” (including Australia, USA, Germany, UK, Sweden, and France) Canada sits uncomfortably near the bottom at 14 with an overall grade of C. The full list of indicators and their respective grades are presented here for your collective disapproval.

What’s the good news? We get an A in water quality, which is desirable but we shouldn’t take too much credit: Canada has the third largest freshwater reserves on the planet, and our A grade is largely due to the amount of clean water that we haven’t yet touched. We get another A in threatened species, but again with our vast wilderness this is more or less success by default – the same goes for the A we receive in use of forest resources. There is some good news to be had with our perfect grade in low-emitting energy production: Canada is a world leader in hydro power, and though there are certainly environmental effects to hydroelectricity, it remains a cleaner choice than coal or natural gas.

Sadly, where we really fail the test is on emissions. Volatile organic compounds (VOC), nitrogen oxides, and greenhouse gas emissions each earn our country a D grade. This means that despite our supposed reliance on hydropower and efforts toward using green products and materials, our energy usage and consumption is dirty and inefficient. Some may like to blame this entirely on industrial activities such as the oil sands, but sitting 9th in the world in energy consumption per capita indicates that much of the blame lies on our personal habits.

Where can we improve? The D grade on municipal waste generation suggests that there are vast opportunities for waste to energy facilities, examples of which are appearing across the country in cities like Edmonton or small communities like Old Crow, Yukon. Our poor performance on energy intensity is not entirely representative of progress; despite the disadvantages of being a vast, cold, industrial country, Canada has managed to decrease its energy intensity by 39% since 1971. Focusing on increasing energy efficiency for everyone from industry to homeowners will be necessary to raise this grade. For industry, carbon pricing in Alberta and British Columbia provide incentives for businesses to increase efficiencies. Homeowners are incentivized through government programs including retrofit or green amenities grants and tax breaks.

These rankings should give pause to any of us who still considers Canada to be a natural and ecological paradise. Even if we ignore our vast tailings ponds, Canada is an environmental delinquent and energy hog. However, we can take comfort in the fact that our country has more than its fair share of innovators who are introducing new processes, technologies, and policies that have the potential to vastly cut down on our energy use, emissions, and rate of environmental degradation. Only by promoting unconventional, risky, and innovative solutions can we hope to dig ourselves out of remedial education. Six D grades wouldn’t have taken me far in my own education, so I can’t accept the same from our country.

(Feature photo courtesy of HckySo/Flickr)