Canada Among the Worst of Polluters? | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Canada Among the Worst of Polluters?

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 28, 2008. Partner content is not updated.

Eden must have been a nice place but nothing beats a Calgary suburb. Those endless winding roads, green lawns in summer, the two- or three-car garages at the end of each driveway, fat steaks on the barbecue, and tangerines in the fruit bowl whether it's July or January ...

Canada Among the Worst of Polluters?

Eden must have been a nice place but nothing beats a Calgary suburb. Those endless winding roads, green lawns in summer, the two- or three-car garages at the end of each driveway, fat steaks on the barbecue, and tangerines in the fruit bowl whether it's July or January ... Paradise never yielded such low-hanging fruit. Draw a hot bath - nay, jacuzzi - Martha and Desmond Alberta, and dip your toes into heaven. Rough, isn't it though, that the whole deal's dragging everyone else into CLIMATE-CHANGE hell?

Greenish Canadians love jeering at the energy gluttons in Alberta, and not without some justification. Last month, when cities across the country dimmed their lights for Earth Hour, then raved about the consequent reductions in power demand, consumption in Calgary, an Earth Hour participant, actually rose 2.1 per cent over the same period the Saturday prior. "We don't have much of a leg to stand on if we want to say that we're not the energy hogs of this country," says Ald. Brian Pincott, who convinced a hesitant city council to sign on to the event. On almost any score, be it water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions or ecological footprint, Calgary, capital of the oil patch and home to just a million souls, looms above most other cities in Canada.

But Canadians with a green-tinted rage against Alberta - is that rainforest green or a shade of envy? - shouldn't be too smug. Why? Because Canada is the Calgary of global energy consumption, the Alberta of planetary profligacy, outstripping all but a few with its capacity to suck up resources and spew out filth. Last year, in "How Canada Performs: A Report Card on Canada," the Conference Board of Canada ranked us 14th out of 17 industrialized countries on a range of environmental indicators (Belgium, Australia and the United States rounded out the list). And those who blame our winters should note the list's top three performers: Sweden, Finland and Norway - none of them balmy, and Norway with an oil and gas sector not unlike ours.

Canada's total energy consumption is among the highest in the G8, according to data released last fall by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And over the past 25 years, we've become real hogs. Between 1980 and 2005, total per capita consumption in the U.S. actually declined from 343 million BTU to 340.5, while Canada's soared to 436.2 from 394.2 million. Among the 30 nations that belong to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, Canada ranks 28th in its performance on such key indicators as energy and water consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, the David Suzuki Foundation concluded in 2004 in "Sustainability Within a Generation: A new vision for Canada."

The upshot? There really are few developed countries that consume more power than we do (of Western nations, only the U.S. is consistently worse). It's a bewildering vista, this wasteland of environmental misbehaviour. North American homes have almost tripled in size since 1950, jacking up heating and energy demands. We love the fruit of faraway Florida and California and our red meat, even though beef requires eight times more energy to raise than vegetables. Who knew it took 250,000 litres of water to produce a single car, or as much as 10,000 to grow the cotton for one T-shirt? Or that, in per-dollar-of-output terms, raising crops and livestock in Canada creates more greenhouse gases than generating and distributing electricity, the other emissions biggie, according to recent research conducted at the University of Toronto and Carnegie Mellon?

It's equally hard to know what to do about it all. Drive your hybrid on the highway, say, and you may be generating more emissions than a regular car (hybrids work best in stop-and-go traffic). Fill up with ethanol, you say? Apart from inflating our food prices, clearing more and more grassland to grow biofuel may actually create 93 times the greenhouse gases than will be saved by the fuel generated on that land on an annual basis, according to a recent paper in Science.

In terms of greenhouse gases - what former Alberta premier Ralph Klein, using the recognized scientific lingo, used to refer to as "dinosaur farts" - Canada is flatulent. In 2005, when our population stood at 32 million, our greenhouse gas emissions weighed in at 747 million tonnes, with the largest contribution coming from electricity and heat generation. Among the largest industrialized emitters of greenhouse gases, almost nobody comes close to belching out our per capita CO2 equivalent (23 tonnes): the U.S. just grazes past us to finish first, at 24 tonnes; we're followed by Russia at 15, Germany at 12 and Japan at 11. The trend finds us growing worse. According to Environment Canada, our net annual greenhouse gas emissions increased by more than 150 million tonnes from its 1995 level of 596 million tonnes. The bulk of that rise was in the energy and transportation sectors.

Or consider water. Our big inefficient potties, the gas-guzzlers of the toilet world, flush a third of our municipal water away. Water use shoots up 50 per cent in summer, when our delicate lawns risk going brown for lack of nourishment and we unleash the hoses on our cars, gardens and, in some communities, our sidewalks. In many older cities, aging infrastructure leaks between 30 and 50 per cent of supply, just a shade better than the developing world. In fact, Canadians use more water than anyone in the industrialized world save the Americans, draining 1,500 cubic metres per person a year.

All this is reflected in our ecological footprint, a measure that converts a jurisdiction's demands into how many global hectares are required to meet those needs per person. In the 2006 "Living Planet Report," the World Wildlife Federation's most recent update on the state of the planet's ecosystems, we tied for third with Finland on a ranking of the world's largest footprints, at 7.6 global hectares. That's almost four times what's actually available to meet the needs of each person on earth. "If the whole world lived as the average Canadian does," says Steven Price, of WWF Canada, "we'd need four planets." Ahead of us are the United Arab Emirates, at 11.9 global hectares, and the U.S. at 9.6. The bulk of the footprints in each case comes from CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

Why are Canadians so profligate? Too much of a good thing, that's why. Consumption tends to rise in tandem with average household income, and Canadians are a wealthy bunch. Look at India, a country of over a billion people. Its total energy consumption in 2005 came in at just 14.8 million BTU, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, some 30 times less than ours. Leaner incomes make for fewer cars, smaller houses and less gadgets. But that's changing as India's fortunes rise along with other developing nations': its consumption in 2005 had more than doubled since 1980, when it was 5.9 million BTU; China's had more than doubled since just 1990, to 51.4 million BTU. The billion or so people now living in the developed world already consume more than nature can handle; what happens when others start receiving what we really shouldn't have? "The so-called 'American Dream' has now become a global dream," says the University of Victoria's David Boyd. "Were the globe to really achieve [that dream], it would be a global nightmare."

In Canada, regional variations in energy consumption and emissions rates have less to do with quirks of appetite than of geography - dictated in the main by whether electricity is generated with hydro or nuclear power or by burning fossil fuels. Sure, Alberta's emissions are high. But comparing it to Manitoba, say, where Premier Gary Doer last week committed to meeting the province's 2012 Kyoto targets, doesn't make a lot of sense. None of Manitoba's electricity derives from coal; the same is true in Quebec, a hydro giant, while just three per cent of British Columbia's emissions come by electricity production. Meanwhile, 25 per cent of Alberta's 233 million tonnes of emissions in 2005 were due to coal-fired power plants. The worst per capita emitters in Canada aren't Albertans at all but live next door, in Saskatchewan; its emissions have increased faster than other provinces' - a growth of more than 60 per cent over 1990 levels in 2005, thanks to a burgeoning oil and gas sector.

Still, Alberta is the prince of emissions, the highest in the country and growing rapidly. While Ontario and Alberta's 1990 emissions were roughly equivalent - 175 and 170 million tonnes respectively - Alberta's growth to 2005 is double that of Ontario's. Much of that is tied to the oil and gas industry, including the oil sands. It's probably not fair to blame Albertans for something that just happens to lie in their backyard (though the government does lag on regulation, with a plan that delays emissions reductions until 2020). After all, everyone stands to benefit from its oil harvest, too - just look at Canada's relative immunity to the U.S. subprime mortgage upheaval.

But remove energy-sector emissions from the picture and the snapshot is much the same. Per capita annual greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation of people and goods still sees Alberta high, at 10.5 tonnes in 2001 - almost twice that of the national average, according to the Community Foundations of Canada's first annual "Vital Signs" report, released last year. Saskatchewan tailgates Alberta at 9.9 tonnes, while Ontario and Quebec, at 5 and 4.3 respectively, are below the national average.

Canadians' energy demands constitute the largest part of our ecological footprint, at 55 per cent, says the "Ecological Footprint of Canadian Municipalities and Regions," a report updated in 2005 that ranks Canada's 20 largest municipalities and urban regions. Calgary has the largest, at 9.9 hectares per capita, followed by Edmonton with 9.1. Toronto's is halfway down the scale, at 7.4, while the daintiest foot belongs to Greater Sudbury, at 6.9. But Ontario is no angel. Three of the five cities in the survey with footprints 10 per cent or more over the average are in the province: Hamilton, Ottawa and York Region, northwest of Toronto. And a lot of that's due to urban sprawl: not only must people drive farther (to work, for groceries, taking the kids to soccer), but suburban homes tend to be bigger and less efficient. Not surprisingly, North America's per capita footprint is 9.4 global hectares and Europe's, at 4.8, is almost half that.

Some of this is an accident of history - Europe's cities are smaller and more dense because they predate the car, predisposing them to public transit and other green measures. But much of Europe has also regulated, slapping taxes on carbon and introducing incentives to smarter building - things we've failed at for three decades. Europeans have an appetite for this sort of grand collective project and the leadership to push it through. It's no accident that carbon capture and storage, Alberta's best hope but still a sci-fi fantasy in the province, has been a Norwegian reality for over a decade; Norway adopted a carbon tax in 1991, giving industry good reason to invest in new technology. Early this year, B.C. announced its own carbon tax, on everything from gasoline to home heating fuel. The most comprehensive such levy in the world, it is the first truly groundbreaking green measure in Canada in a generation. Could Premier Gordon Campbell's move possibly succeed in shaming his provincial peers into cleaning up Canada's shameful act?


Maclean's April 28, 2008