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Hold Your Breath: Canada’s Emission of Air Pollutants Remains High

April 29, 2016
Brent DowDall
Senior Manager, Research and Business Development
Forecasting and Analysis
James Knowles James Knowles
Research Associate

Canada is often seen—globally and at home—as a pristine natural setting, where the air is fresh and clear. While a powerful national motif, it obscures the reality that Canada puts a lot of pollutants into the air. On a per capita basis, Canada is one of the biggest air polluters among developed economies.

The Conference Board recently released its new How Canada Performs: Environment report card, ranking and grading Canada against 15 other countries on indicators in four major categories: air quality, freshwater management, waste, and climate change. For the first time, the analysis also includes provincial comparisons.

For air quality, we measured the closed-source per capita emissions of four major classes of air pollutants known to impact both the environment and human health: sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and particulate matter (PM) (we measured inhalable PM with a diameter less than or equal to 10 micrometres, referred to as PM10).

Canada Scores a “D”

Canada performed poorly on all four measures. Its best scores were a “B” grade on SOx and a “C” grade on NOx, although in both instances Canada ranked ahead of only one peer country—Australia.

On VOCs and PM, Canada got “D” grades and ranked below all other countries considered in the analysis.

This poor performance is, not surprisingly, reflected at the provincial level. Ontario got the best results on air quality of all the provinces, recording two “A” grades (for NOx and SOx), one “B” grade, and a “C” grade. Ontario is also the only province that got no “D” grades. At the other end of the spectrum, three provinces, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, got mostly “D–” grades on the air quality indicators, with emission rates that are higher than all peer countries.

Better, But a Long Way to Go

What this report card doesn’t reveal at first glance is Canada’s marked reduction of emissions of these pollutants over the past 25 years. That said, other countries that started with lower per capita emissions have also made substantive reductions, so Canada’s placement in the rankings has changed little.

For instance, Canada’s per capita SOx emissions have dropped by nearly 72 per cent since 1990, from 111 to 32 kg. (See Chart 1.) All provinces other than Saskatchewan have reduced per capita SOx emissions by at least half. Even Manitoba, which has the highest SOx emissions among the provinces and peer countries, substantially reduced its emissions (but still ranked last).

European countries have demonstrated that substantial reductions in SOx are possible over a relatively short period. Both Germany and the U.K. have improved total SOx emissions (in absolute terms) from well above Canada’s level in 1990 to well below by 2012. If Canada also wants to make bigger cuts, it will require improvements in three sectors of the economy that produce roughly 80 per cent of emissions: metal smelting and refining, electricity generation, and petroleum production and refining.

Although 7 of the 10 Canadian provinces got “D–” grades on PM10 emissions, the emission rate of PM10 has dropped more than 60 per cent since 1990, led by British Columbia (78 per cent). Nearly half of the remaining emissions come from the combustion of wood to heat residences. Transitioning to electricity and/or natural gas heating would help to cut back on PM10 emissions. Stricter air quality regulations for high-emission industries—including the mining and rock quarrying industry and the cement and concrete industry—could also help, but may prove difficult to meet; much of the PM10 emissions are by-products of industrial activities rather than from chemical use or petroleum combustion.

Between 1990 and 2014, per capita VOC emissions dropped by 63 per cent. These improvements have come largely thanks to cleaner technology and fuels for vehicles, reductions in industrial emissions, and lower levels of VOCs in paints, solvents, and cleaners. Since 1990, per capita NOx production has decreased by 47 per cent. Ontario—an “A”-level performer on this indicator—has reduced its NOx production rate by over 65 per cent.

Making further substantive reductions to Canada’s NOx and VOC emissions will require action in the petroleum and transportation industries. Increasing the stringency of emissions regulations is probably the simplest way for governments to continue these efforts. Such regulations would have the largest impact in Saskatchewan and Alberta, the provinces with the poorest environmental performance, as both have large petroleum industries and significant transportation fuel consumption.

Over the last 25 years, Canada has done a good job of decreasing emission rates of major air pollutants. But we still have a long way to go to catch up to our peers. Because air pollutants ignore political boundaries, provinces and regions should work together more closely to reduce emissions. The Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards established in 2012 by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment are a good step, and will hopefully help limit the health-related impacts of air pollutants, particularly around large urban centres. Implementing more stringent interprovincial emissions standards would also prove effective at reducing total pollutant emissions.

To learn more about the environmental performance of Canada and the provinces, see the latest How Canada Performs: Environment report card.

On May 16, report authors James Knowles and Sheila Rao will dig deeper into the results and answer questions about the Environment Report Card during a live webinar.


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