The data on this page are current as of April 2016.
What does Canada’s overall environmental report card look like?
Overall, Canada earns a “D” and ranks 14th among the 16 peer countries—only the U.S. and Australia perform worse. This is a drop in performance from our previous 2013 national report card, where Canada received a “C.” However, these grades are not perfectly comparable, as the set of indicators in this report card is not identical to the one used in the previous report card. Regardless, the poor ranking clearly indicates that Canada has a long way to go toward improving its environmental performance.
Looking at air pollution, Canada’s grade on nitrogen oxides emissions has improved, from a “D” to a “C.” Since 1990, per capita NOx production in Canada has decreased substantially, from 101 kg to 53 kg in 2014, a reduction of 47 per cent. While Canada retains a “B” and two “D” grades on sulphur dioxides, VOC emissions, and PM10 emissions, respectively, emission rates of all 3 pollutants have dropped significantly over the past couple of decades.
For water withdrawals and wastewater treatment, Canada earns “B” grades. On climate change indicators, Canada still gets “D” grades on GHG emissions and energy intensity.
Despite its poor overall environmental performance, Canada does rank highly on one indicator, scoring an “A” on low-emitting electricity generation. Thanks to Canada’s abundant freshwater resources, over half of the electricity generated in the country comes from hydro power. Nuclear power, predominantly generated in Ontario, also makes up a large portion of the country’s total electricity supply. These two sources of electricity generation, combined with a small but growing volume of non-hydro renewable capacity, result in nearly 80 per cent of Canada’s electricity being generated from low-emitting sources.
Which provinces rank highest on environmental performance?
Ontario is the top-ranked province, earning a “B” grade overall and placing ahead of five peer countries. Quebec, British Columbia, and P.E.I. receive “C” grades, ranking behind Finland, but ahead of the U.S. and Australia.
Ontario places in the middle of the pack overall, ranking 11th among all 26 comparator jurisdictions. Compared with the other provinces, it performs well on the air pollution indicators, earning “A” grades for having low per capita SOx and NOx emissions. The province uses relatively little water and so also receives an “A” grade on water withdrawals. Ontario entirely shut down the last of its coal stations in 2014 and now relies primarily on hydro and nuclear power for electricity generation. As a result, the province gets an “A” for low-emitting electricity production. Ontario scores “B” grades on four indicators: VOC emissions, wastewater treatment, waste generation, and GHG emissions. The province’s sole “C” grade is on PM10 emissions.
Ontario does poorly on one indicator, with a “D” grade on energy intensity.
Quebec is the second-highest-ranked province behind Ontario and places 15th overall, earning a “C” grade. Because of its abundant hydro resources, Quebec produces 99 per cent of its electricity from low-emission sources and thus scores very highly on low-emitting electricity production. The province earns an “A+” grade on this indicator for outperforming all peer countries, ranking behind only Manitoba. Quebec also does well on two other indicators, earning “A” grades on SOx emissions and GHG emissions. Quebec gets “B” grades on NOx emissions, water withdrawals, and wastewater treatment and a “C” grade on VOC emissions. Quebec earns a “C” grade on waste generation. Quebec’s poorest performances are on PM10 emissions and energy intensity, for which it earns “D–” grades for doing worse than the lowest-ranked peer country.
British Columbia ranks third among the provinces and 16th overall. Like Quebec, B.C. produces most of its electricity from hydro stations, and so scores an “A” on low-emitting electricity production. The province also gets an “A” on SOx emissions. B.C. scores “B”s on water withdrawals, waste generation, and GHG emissions and “C”s on two indicators: VOC emissions and wastewater treatment. The province does poorly on NOx emissions, PM10 emissions, and energy intensity, scoring “D” grades.
Prince Edward Island places 17th overall, ranking just below B.C. on the overall environment report card. The province’s top mark is an “A+” grade on low-emitting electricity production. P.E.I. is unique among the provinces in that nearly all of the electricity generated within the province comes from non-hydro renewable sources, such as wind and solar. It should be noted, however, that P.E.I. is unable to produce enough electricity to satisfy provincial demand, and thus imports a large proportion of its electricity from New Brunswick. P.E.I. also does well on three other indicators, scoring “A” grades on SOx emissions, wastewater treatment, and water withdrawals. The province gets “B” grades on NOx and GHG emissions. P.E.I.’s worst performance is on PM10 emissions and energy intensity, where it scores “D–” grades. The province also does poorly on VOC emissions, getting a “D.”
Which province earns a “D” overall?
Manitoba is the top-ranking Prairie province but places only 5th among all provinces and 19th among the 26 jurisdictions with a “D” grade overall. Like Quebec and B.C., Manitoba generates most of its electricity from hydro sources and gets an “A+” grade on low-emitting electricity production. The province also does well on water withdrawals, with an “A” and a 7th-place finish. Manitoba gets a “B” on wastewater treatment and “C” grades on NOx emissions and GHG emissions. On the remaining five indicators, the province does very poorly, with “D” grades on VOC emissions, PM10 emissions, and waste generation, and “D–” grades on SOx emissions and energy intensity. Manitoba has the highest SOx emission rate among all comparator jurisdictions.
What explains Canada’s poor environmental performance?
Canada is geographically large, with a population that is, on average, sparsely spread out. As a result, Canada naturally has higher per capita energy consumption than other comparable countries, as a greater proportion of its energy is lost during transmission, and transport distances for goods and people are longer. And unlike many other developed countries, Canada’s economy relies heavily on primary industries, such as resource extraction and agriculture. Primary industries typically consume more energy than service-producing industries per dollar of GDP they generate. Since poor performance on many of the indicators in this report card is primarily a result of energy consumption, including GHG emissions, energy intensity, and the air quality indicators, Canada does poorly overall.
Canada is also relatively far north, and unlike the comparator countries from Europe that are at a similar latitude, Canada does not benefit much from the warmth provided by the Gulf Stream (and, in particular, the North Atlantic Drift). The cold climate means more energy is required for heating, on average, than in many of the comparator countries.
How do the other Atlantic provinces rank on environmental performance?
While P.E.I. scores a “C” and ranks 17th overall, the performance of the remaining Atlantic provinces is dismal, with Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador all scoring “D–” grades, ranking below the poorest-performing peer country, Australia.
New Brunswick ranks 22nd overall, placing just behind Australia. The province’s poorest showing is on the PM10 emissions and energy intensity indicators, resulting in two “D–” grades. The province gets “D” grades for its high VOC and GHG emission rates and “C” grades on NOx emissions and wastewater treatment. New Brunswick is a “B” performer on SOx emissions, water withdrawals, waste generation, and low-emitting electricity production. The province does not earn any “A” grades.
Nova Scotia ranks 23nd overall and scores “D–” grades on wastewater treatment and on two air pollution indicators: NOx emissions and PM10 emissions. The province also does poorly on the two other air pollution indicators, with “D” grades on SOx and VOC emissions. This results to some extent from Nova Scotia’s reliance on coal combustion to generate electricity. The province also does poorly on the climate change indicators, with “D” grades on low-emitting electricity production, energy intensity and GHG emissions. Nova Scotia does do well on two environmental indicators. The province produces little waste and consumes a relatively small amount of freshwater, and so earns “A” grades on waste generation and water withdrawals.
Newfoundland and Labrador is the lowest-ranking Atlantic province, placing 24th overall and performing well on just one indicator. The province produces most its electricity from hydro sources, and so receives an “A” grade on low-emitting electricity production, ranking above all international peers except Norway. It also scores reasonably well on SOx emissions, with a “B” grade. There is room for substantive improvement on most other indicators. While Newfoundland and Labrador does have the lowest energy intensity among the provinces, scoring a “C” grade, it still ranks below 14 of the 16 peer countries, ahead of Canada as a whole and Finland. It also gets “C” grades for GHG emissions and waste generation. The province gets a “D” grade on water withdrawals, where it falls at the bottom of the provincial ranking, placing ahead of only the United States. The province scores “D–” grades on three of the four air pollution indicators: NOx, VOC, and PM10 emissions. Finally, while over 90 per cent of the population is connected to a sewer system, only half of the wastewater collected receives more than preliminary treatment. Newfoundland and Labrador thus receives a “D–” on wastewater treatment and ranks at the very bottom on this indicator.
What provinces are at the bottom of the pack?
Alberta and Saskatchewan are the worst-ranked of all the comparator jurisdictions on the environment report card.
Alberta ranks 25th and scores “D–” grades on most of the environmental performance indicators. The province does poorly on all indicators of air pollution, scoring “D–” grades on NOx, VOC, and PM10 emissions and a “C” on SOx emissions. Alberta’s performance on the climate change indicators is dismal, with “D–” grades on GHG emissions, low-emitting electricity production, and energy intensity. These results are not surprising given that the province relies heavily on fossil fuels to generate electricity and that its economy is driven by primary industries. The province’s second “C” grade is on water withdrawals, where it ranks second-to-last among the provinces. Alberta gets its top grade, a “B,” on wastewater treatment.
Saskatchewan ranks last among all 26 comparator jurisdictions. Like Alberta, Saskatchewan relies heavily on fossil fuels for generating electricity, and so earns a “D” on low-emitting electricity production. The province also does poorly on the air pollution indicators, earning a “D” grade on SOx emissions and “D–” grades on NOx, VOC, and PM10 emissions. Saskatchewan earns “D–” grades on the remaining climate change indicators because primary industries compose a large proportion of Saskatchewan’s economy, resulting in a high energy intensity and a high GHG emission rate. Saskatchewan does do well on a couple of measures though. The province doesn’t use much water and provides adequate treatment for most of the wastewater collected, and so earns “A” grades on the water withdrawals and wastewater treatment indicators.
What about the territories?
The territories are not included in the overall provincial and international benchmarking calculations because data for each individual territory are not available for several of the indicators included in the overall environment report card. The Conference Board is, however, committed to including the territories in our analysis, and so we provide information on territorial performance when data are available.
NOx emissions: All three territories do poorly on NOx emissions. Yukon scores a “C,” while both the Northwest Territories and Nunavut get “D–” grades, ranking behind Alberta, the worst-performing province.
SOx emissions: The territories all perform well on this indicator. Yukon earns an “A+”, and ranks ahead of all provinces and peer countries. The Northwest Territories and Nunavut score “A” grades.
VOC emissions: Each of the three territories earns a “D–” grade on VOC emissions. Nunavut in particular has very high VOC emissions, and ranks below even Saskatchewan on this indicator.
PM10 emissions: Yukon does fairly well, with a “B” grade on PM10 emissions. Conversely, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut have very high emission rates and get “D–” grades.
Wastewater treatment: Data are not available for individual territories, but collectively, the territories earn a “D– grade.
Water withdrawals: Nunavut is the top-ranked region in Canada on water withdrawals and earns an “A” grade. Both Yukon and the Northwest Territories earn “B” grades.
GHG emissions: Yukon has lower GHG emissions than most provinces and so earns a “B” grade, placing behind only Quebec within Canada. Separate data are not available for the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, but combined, these territories get a “D” grade.
Low-emitting electricity production: Yukon earns an “A” for producing 95 per cent of its electricity from non-combustion sources. The Northwest Territories gets a “C” grade. Nunavut produces all its electricity from combustion sources and receives a “D–” grade on low-emitting electricity production.
Territorial data are not available for the waste generation and energy intensity indicators.
What does the provincial environmental report card look like?
How can Canada and the provinces reduce their emissions of air pollutants?
There is room for substantive improvement on reducing emissions given that every province except Ontario gets at least one “D” or “D–” grade from among the four air pollution indicators, and three provinces each receive three “D–” grades.
Canada has a particularly bad record when it comes to PM10 emissions, with seven of the ten provinces receiving “D–” grades. PM10 is emitted from a variety of sources, but nationally, the biggest source is the combustion of residential fuel wood, which accounts for over 40 per cent of Canada’s closed-source PM10 emissions. Transitioning Canada’s residents to alternative fuels to heat their homes (either electricity or natural gas where possible) would help substantially to cut back on PM10 emissions.
Most of the remaining PM10 is emitted by industry. The mining and rock quarrying industry emits the most PM10 by a wide margin, but large volumes are also produced by the grain industry, the cement and concrete industry, the pulp and paper industry, and the petroleum industry. Stricter air quality regulations for industry could help to reduce PM10 emissions. However, limiting PM10 emissions from several high-emission industries, including the mining and rock quarrying industry and the cement and concrete industry, will prove difficult. Much of the PM10 emissions produced by these industries are not a direct result of energy use, but are a by-product of the industries’ activities (e.g., rock dust created during drilling or blasting). So to some extent, emissions from these industries cannot be reduced without requiring the producing industries to enclose and filter out the particulate matter of their operations or to reduce their activity.
Canada also does poorly on VOC and NOx emissions. The petroleum industry is a large contributor, generating roughly 23 per cent of the nation’s NOx emissions and 39 per cent of its VOCs. Vehicles (on-road, off-road, marine, rail, and air) are also responsible for a huge proportion of harmful air emissions, accounting for over 50 per cent of NOx emissions and over 20 per cent of VOCs in Canada. So, significantly reducing Canada’s NOx and VOC emissions will likely require large improvements in the petroleum and transportation industries.
The best way to reduce emissions from these industries is to increase the stringency of emissions regulations. This would have the largest impact in Saskatchewan and Alberta, the provinces with the poorest environmental performance, as both have large petroleum industries and higher-than-average transportation activity (as measured by fuel consumption). Further development of alternative fuel vehicle (AFV) technologies, to reduce diesel and gasoline consumption by the transportation industry, could also go a long way toward reducing Canada’s emissions of air pollutants.
How can Canada better manage its freshwater?
Several provinces do well, scoring an “A” on at least one indicator of freshwater management. Nationwide, however, there are improvements to be made, particularly on wastewater treatment.
Ensuring that Canada’s wastewater is properly treated helps to maintain the environment and ensure that groundwater remains safe to consume. While most provinces have some capacity to improve on wastewater treatment, Newfoundland and Labrador has the furthest to go. With about half of its sewered water remaining untreated, the province could make huge strides by providing at least primary water treatment to more of the collected wastewater.
How is environmental performance measured?
To measure environmental performance, we evaluate and assign grades to Canada, its provinces, and 15 peer countries on 9 indicators. We evaluate the provinces on an additional indicator for which comparable international data are not available. We also calculate an overall environmental grade for each province and country, based on the aggregate performance on the 9 indicators for which international data are available. For more details on how the grades are calculated, please visit the Methodology page.
The territories are not included in the overall environmental report card because data for each individual territory were not available for several of the indicators.
Although we remained as consistent as possible with our previous international environment report cards, our choice of indicators was limited by the availability of comparable data for both provincial and international jurisdictions. Provincial data were not available for threatened species, forest cover change, and marine trophic index, so these were excluded from the provincial report card. Provincial data were not available for the water quality indicator either, but we replaced that with a wastewater treatment indicator.
The use of forest resources is another important environmental indicator that we have included in previous How Canada Performs environment report cards. Preserving forests is key to preserving biodiversity and contributing to a country’s (or province’s) overall environmental health. However, comparable provincial and international data are not available, and so we do not have a suitable indicator to use to evaluate how well Canada and the provinces use their forest resources. Instead, we include a discussion of how each province performs separately but have not made international comparisons, nor assigned grades to the provinces for the indicator. Likewise, this indicator has been excluded from the aggregate provincial grades.
The 10 indicators in the overall environment report card cover four broad categories: air pollution, waste, freshwater management, and climate change.
Air pollution is assessed by examining performance on four indicators, all measured on a per capita basis: nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions, sulphur oxides (SOx) emissions, volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions, and particulate matter (PM10) emissions. These emissions contribute to smog and acid rain, and harm human and animal respiratory systems. They typically affect not just the areas where they are produced but also other nearby areas.
Waste is measured through a single indicator: per capita waste generation. Solid waste that is disposed of in landfills emits GHGs, takes up space that could be used more productively, and can leak contaminants into the local environment. If incinerated, fewer contaminants are leaked, but this results in further GHG and other emissions that affect air quality. The waste indicator excludes waste that is diverted from landfills or combustors by recycling, composting, or other means. Unfortunately, international waste data are not comparable to Canadian national or provincial data. So for this indicator, we make inter-provincial comparisons only, and exclude this indicator from the calculation of the grades for overall environmental performance.
The indicators used to measure freshwater management are wastewater treatment and water withdrawals. Ensuring access to clean freshwater is critical for all countries, as freshwater is a necessary component of most ecosystems and human economic activity. Wastewater treatment is measured as the proportion of wastewater that receives at least primary treatment, while water withdrawals are measured on a per capita basis.
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (measured per capita), low-emitting electricity production (i.e., the share of low-GHG-emitting electricity production in total domestic electricity production), and energy intensity (i.e., energy consumed by industries and individuals per unit of GDP) are all climate change indicators. Climate change is now recognized as a critical global issue that has the potential to alter the functioning of ecosystems, weather, and geographic habitability worldwide. More must be done to reduce GHG emissions and improve energy efficiency. While the impacts of climate change will vary substantially across the planet, all GHGs contribute to global warming, regardless of where they originate.
Putting environmental performance in context
The overarching goal of How Canada Performs is to measure quality of life for Canada, its provinces and territories, and its peer countries. But a country must not only demonstrate a high quality of life—it must also demonstrate that its high quality of life is sustainable.
With climate change taking centre stage globally, there is finally consensus that economic growth pursued at the expense of the environment and at the expense of scarce and finite physical resources is clearly not sustainable. Protecting the environment from further damage is not a problem for tomorrow, but a challenge for today. Without serious attention to environmental sustainability, Canada puts its society and its quality of life at risk.
- Compared with international peers, all of Canada’s provinces rank poorly on the environment report card, with top-ranked Ontario scoring a “B” and placing behind 10 of the 15 peer countries.
- Quebec, British Columbia, and P.E.I. are “C” performers, while Manitoba gets a “D.”
- Saskatchewan, Alberta, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick are at the bottom of the pack, with “D–” grades for doing worse than the lowest-ranked peer country.
- Canada gets a “D” overall and ranks third-last among the peer countries.
What can Canada do to help mitigate climate change?
At the recent 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (known as “COP21”), the 195 participating countries agreed to limit their carbon emissions in order to keep global warming “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.”1 This is an ambitious (albeit non-binding) target that, by one estimate, will require that global anthropogenic carbon emissions (CO2) be reduced to net zero sometime between 2055 and 2070.2 Canada’s poor grades on GHG emissions and energy intensity show that the country has a long way to go.
Increasing renewable energy’s share of total energy consumption and shifting toward low-emitting sources of electricity will help reduce the country’s carbon output. Canada as a whole performs well on this front, with nearly 80 per cent of electricity production coming from low-emitting sources. Thanks to Canada’s abundant freshwater resources, over half of Canadian electricity comes from hydro plants. Nuclear power, predominantly generated in Ontario, also makes up a large portion of the country’s total electricity. However, several provinces still rely heavily on fossil fuels to generate electricity—Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia, in particular. To improve their environmental performance, these provinces could look to develop hydro resources or invest in other renewable sources of energy, such as wind or solar electricity. Another alternative, recently explored in Saskatchewan, is to install carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology for coal power plants. Nova Scotia, unique among these three provinces because of its access to the Atlantic Ocean, could develop tidal power generation capacity for the Bay of Fundy. It should be noted, however, that none of these provinces have much undeveloped hydro capacity that could cost-effectively replace thermal combustion plants, and non-hydro renewables are typically intermittent, so cannot be relied upon to replace on-demand baseload generation capacity. CCS technology is likewise very expensive to implement.
Another alternative for these three provinces is to increase their use of natural gas and decrease their use of coal, as natural gas burns more cleanly. Even though natural gas is not considered a low-emitting source of electricity generation, it produces substantially less GHG per unit of energy than coal when it is combusted. Investing in combined-cycle natural gas plants (which have significantly higher conversion efficiency than traditional natural gas plants) would help to further reduce GHGs.
Canada has one of the highest GHG emission rates among its peer countries—only the U.S. and Australia do worse. Roughly 12 per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions are produced during electricity generation, so taking the above steps of reducing the use of coal power plants and increasing the use of renewable energy sources could help lower overall emissions.
However, to make meaningful reductions to GHGs, Canada must target its largest sources. Transportation alone accounts for 28 per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions, and the mining and petroleum industries, when fugitive emissions (such as those from flaring) are included, produce another 23 per cent. Clearly, transportation and resource extraction are vital to Canada’s economy, so policy-makers are faced with the challenge of finding solutions that adequately address environment priorities without entirely sacrificing growth.
There is a long road ahead for Canada to transition to a low-carbon economy—especially given that it is a highly energy-intensive country because of its climate, vast geography, and industrial structure. Imposing stricter energy efficiency regulations across any or all sectors of the economy would help to reduce energy consumption. This could be done by increasing energy efficiency standards, phasing out the use of traditional fossil fuels, or both. Further developing alternative fuel vehicle (AFV) technologies would help to reduce emissions from the transportation sector and would also improve air quality.3
Carbon pricing is also an essential tool to reduce global warming emissions. A direct way to put a price on carbon is to implement a carbon tax. A carbon tax is a tax on pollution—a fee charged to emitters based on the amount of GHGs they emit as a result of their activities. Another way to price carbon is with a cap and trade system, in which businesses must meet certain emission targets, but if they do not, they are able to purchase carbon “credits” from other businesses that exceed their targets.
Reassuringly, several provinces are taking action on the carbon pricing front. Currently, B.C. has a carbon tax, while Quebec has a cap and trade system, and Alberta imposes fees on high-emission facilities that are unable to meet GHG emission reduction targets. In the near future, Ontario is planning to implement its own cap and trade system, and Alberta is going to replace its GHG levy with a carbon tax starting in January 2017.
While industry generates the lion’s share of GHG emissions, more must be done to encourage households to be more energy efficient—for example, by incentivizing energy efficiency initiatives such as increasing insulation and using higher-efficiency furnaces and water heaters. Other “demand-side” policies, such as time-of-day pricing could also be effective at reducing GHGs, by displacing demand for electricity during peak hours, when marginal generation capacity often comes from carbon-intensive generation sources. More stringent emissions standards on vehicles, as well as increased accessibility to and optimization of public transit routes can also make a difference.
Finally, to make the dramatic emissions reductions necessary to fight climate change, Canada needs to invest in green technologies and innovation. Many of the suggested solutions to reduce GHG emissions are expensive, so cost is likely the single largest barrier to their implementation. Simply put, with the technology available today and its current cost structure, Canada will not be able to make the necessary large-scale reductions to GHG emissions without incurring very high costs. Increased investment in renewable energy could lead to the development of better and more cost-effective sources. And more investment in R&D, from both the public sector and businesses is critical to the discovery of breakthrough technologies and inventions needed to make a massive dent in emissions.
Unfortunately, Canada’s public and business R&D as a share of GDP has fallen in recent years. On an encouraging note, however, Canada recently agreed to participate in an international initiative called “Mission Innovation,” through which 20 of the world’s wealthiest countries have pledged to double investment in clean energy innovation over five years.4 Canada will invest an additional $100 million each year in clean technology producers and an additional $200 million each year to support innovation and the use of clean technologies in the natural resources sector.5 Broader and more uniform implementation of carbon taxes would also help to spur private sector innovation to reduce GHGs.
3 For a more complete discussion of the GHG emissions reductions achievable through AFV technologies, see Allison Robins, James Knowles, and Len Coad, A Long Hard Road (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2015).
4 Mission Innovation, Mission Innovation: Accelerating the Clean Energy Revolution.