COLUMN: Canada`s environmental record may not be as great as we think
Ask most Canadians where our country stands in terms of global environmental performance and most will probably say that we must be in the top five, or at least the top 10.
According to the “Environmental Performance Index 2020 Global metrics for the environment: Ranking country performance on sustainability issues” (EPI) — a joint project of the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University’s Earth Institute — we are deluded. In the EPI, Canada ranks 20th after such less-known environmental leaders as the United Kingdom (4th), France (5th), Spain (14th), and Slovenia (18th).
The EPI is based on a set of 32 performance indicators obtained directly or indirectly from national data sets. The data are normalized by the research team and performance is ranked on a scale from one to 100, with 100 representing achievement of global targets.
Denmark, the leader in the EPI, achieved an overall score of 82.5 out of 100. Close behind, in second and third place, are Luxembourg and Switzerland, respectively. Canada has a 2020 score of 71, placing it in a tie with the Czech Republic and Italy, and only just ahead of the United States of America, which stands in 24th place with a score of 69.3.
What has happened here?
Drilling down into the detailed data reminds us of some all-too-stark facts. In greenhouse gas emissions per capita, Canada is in 168th place out of 180 countries (all indicators are normalized so that 1st place is best and 180th place is worst).
On air quality, Canada is in 7th place, but on ozone exposure, which is part of the air quality index, Canada is in 55th place. On unsafe drinking water, Canada is in 22nd place, a pretty shameful position given that Canada is in many other ways a well-developed country. On unsafe sanitation, Canada is in 31st place. On waste management, Canada is in 27th place.
On loss of tree cover (101st place), loss of grasslands (70th place), and loss of wetlands (55th place), Canada is not ranking well. On fisheries, Canada is in 89th place. On climate change overall, Canada is in 37th place, a ranking that tends to hide our dismal performance in many sub-categories of climate change.
Though areas of improvement are often small, Canada does show some improvement on some of the indicators. Overall, Canada is up 3.7 points over the last 10 years. The EPI shows some significant improvements in air quality, terrestrial biomes, marine protected areas, grassland and wetland loss, and black carbon, among others. On the downside, Canada’s performance has worsened significantly in species habitat, nitrous oxide emissions, and greenhouse gas intensity.
The authors of the EPI provide a fairly limited analysis of the data, apparently viewing their primary role to be the provision of data rather than in-depth analysis of the data.
However, the authors do draw a few conclusions, which may be somewhat helpful to Canada:
- Good policy results are associated with wealth (GDP per capita), meaning that economic prosperity makes it possible for nations to invest in policies and programs that lead to desirable outcomes. This trend is especially true for issue categories under the umbrella of environmental health, as building the necessary infrastructure to provide clean drinking water and sanitation, reduce ambient air pollution, control hazardous waste, and respond to public health crises yields large returns for human well-being.
- The data suggest countries need not sacrifice sustainability for economic security or vice versa. In every issue category, there are countries that rise above their economic peers. Policymakers and other stakeholders in these leading countries demonstrate that focused attention can mobilize communities to protect natural resources and human wellbeing despite the strains associated with economic growth.
- While top EPI performers pay attention to all areas of sustainability, their lagging peers tend to have uneven performance.
- Laggards must redouble national sustainability efforts along all fronts.
When it comes to indexes, especially at the global level, some experts and many not-so-experts are always going to nitpick at the details and the Yale-Columbia EPI is certainly open to that activity. Much as many may not like the results, the EPI is based on data that are the best available, though for Canada as a whole probably not good enough.
The EPI is also based on a methodology that achieves a reasonably fair comparison, at least among the OECD block of 37 countries. It appears to be reasonably likely that, as a country, our perception of our nation's environmental performance at a macro level greatly exceeds our actual environmental performance.
Finally, for those critics who are routinely suspicious of the sources of funding for studies that draw conclusions about organizational or other performance, this one appears to be above reproach. The EPI is funded through the support of the McCall MacBain Foundation. This Foundation was established in 2007 by Canadians John and Marcy McCall MacBain. Its assets are derived from the proceeds of the sale of Trader Classified Media, as in Auto Trader magazine, claimed to be the world’s leading company in classified advertising.