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Canada’s population has more than doubled in the last half-century alone. Not surprisingly, feeding, transporting, warming and cooling 32 million Canadians takes a toll on our land, water and air. Since the capacity of the environment to supply materials and absorb waste is finite, reliable statistical information is an essential part of understanding—and responding to—the impact we have on our natural surroundings.

Canada is water rich: we have access to 20% of the world’s supply of fresh water and 7% of the world’s renewable water flow. Per capita, Canadians use about 1,500 cubic metres of water every year. Among Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation countries, only Americans use more, at 1,870 cubic metres.

By the late 1990s, almost 65.7 billion cubic metres of fresh water was used in Canada annually, 40.1 billion cubic metres was discharged once it had been used, and another 20.8 billion cubic metres was recirculated. The rest was consumed by humans or livestock, was incorporated into products, evaporated, or was otherwise removed from the local hydrologic cycle.

Where the water goes

Chart: Water use per capita of selected countries, 1999About 94% of water withdrawals—including recirculated water—was used by industry. Municipalities used the other 6% to serve households, schools and hospitals.

The electric power and utilities industry drew 63% of the total intake to produce electricity and cool power plants, recirculating 40% of its supply. Manufacturers drew 14%, but that was down from levels in the 1980s as a result of greater efficiency and recirculation practices in the industrial sector.

Agriculture was the largest consumer of fresh water, using 9% of total freshwater withdrawals, three-quarters of which was not returned to its source. Most was used for irrigation, with farmers in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan using 92% of the irrigation water—about 3.8 billion cubic metres.

Untreated discharge compromises the quality of water. By the late 1990s, 40% of Canadians in municipalities with a population greater than 1,000 lived in areas where wastewater received the best available treatment (tertiary treatment). Another 56% had some sort of wastewater treatment and 3% of Canadians were connected to sewer systems but had no wastewater treatment.

The greenhouse gas challenge

Chart: Greenhouse gas emissions, selected industriesWhen the sun’s energy penetrates the earth's atmosphere, it warms the surface of the earth and lower atmosphere. Some of that energy is prevented from returning to space by the presence of greenhouses gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere.

Without GHGs acting as a blanket, the Earth would be inhospitable to life as we know it. Most of the GHGs in the atmosphere occur naturally and are absorbed by natural processes. But human activity also contributes to their formation, causing concern about how we are contributing to climate change.

Canada produced 18.3 tonnes of GHGs per capita in 2000, surpassed only by Australia (27.6) and the United States (21.1). From 1981 to 2000, households were responsible for almost 20% of Canada’s GHG emissions from human activity.

From 1990 to 2003, the Canadian economy grew by nearly 43% (measured by gross domestic product). During the same period, GHG emissions increased 24%, from 596 to 740 million tonnes. This was a net increase of about 144 million tonnes, of which 86.5 million tonnes were energy-related. GHG emissions also grew faster than the population: from 1990 to 2003, emissions rose 9% from 21.5 to 23.4 tonnes per person.

Overall, Canada’s GHG emissions per unit of GDP dropped 13% from 1990 to 2003. Efficiency improvements in the energy sector partly explain the drop. The increased dominance of the services sector, which is a less-intensive contributor to GHGs, was also a factor. However, rapid growth of the economy—in both the goods-producing and the services-producing sectors—resulted in a net increase in emissions.

In addition, Canadians have become increasingly dependent on road transportation. Around 18.5 million vehicles were on Canada’s roads in 2003. They travelled 313 billion kilometres and consumed more than 42 billion litres of gasoline or diesel.

From 1990 to 2003, the number of vehicles rose 8% faster than the population. There was also a shift in the types of vehicles used for personal transportation from automobiles to vans, sport-utility vehicles and light-duty gasoline-powered trucks. On average, these heavier vehicles emit 40% more GHGs per kilometre than do automobiles. Total GHG emissions from light-duty gasoline trucks rose 93% from 1990 to 2003, while emissions from cars fell 8%.

Heavy-duty diesel vehicles also contributed with a 71% jump in emissions from 1990 to 2003. Emissions from these vehicles accounted for nearly 19% of the country’s total emissions for the year, further contributing to the formation of GHGs in the atmosphere.

Taking out the trash

More than 30 million tonnes of solid, non-hazardous waste were generated in 2002 from all residential and non-residential sources. This was 3.9% higher than the total in 2000, and it amounted to an average of 971 kilograms per person.

Chart: Disposal of waste, by provinceNearly seven million tonnes were prepared for recycling. Some of the remaining 24 million tonnes was incinerated or transported to other countries. Most ended up in one of Canada’s disposal facilities.

Materials in landfills can contaminate the water that falls as precipitation and percolates through the layers of garbage. This creates leachate that can find its way into groundwater, streams and rivers, compromising water quality.

The majority of solid waste is disposed of in large-scale facilities. The owners and operators of these municipal or private-sector facilities use either natural or artificial landfill liners to prevent leachate from entering the groundwater. Leachate collection systems and liners were present in only 18% of active landfills in 2000, but these sites processed about 75% of all waste.

In 2001, 41 landfills across Canada captured 342,000 tonnes of methane produced by decomposing organic material. Less than one-half of the methane was burned or flared;  57% was used as energy at eight sites to heat a steel refinery, a greenhouse, a recycling plant and a manufacturing plant. Another eight landfills converted methane into electricity.