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The environment has been an issue of concern among Canadians and the subject of debate in the media for years. In 2007, it was the number one issue, and 45% of Canadians rated the quality of the environment as ‘fair.’ Of issues Canadians say the country is facing, climate change tops the list.

According to the 2007 Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators, the pressure on Canada’s environment is steady or increasing. From 1990 to 2005, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and air quality were ongoing concerns. During the same period, guidelines for protecting aquatic life were not being met, at least occasionally, at many monitoring sites across the country.

While Canadians are changing their activities to protect the environment, reducing the nation’s impact on the environment is proving difficult, especially in an era of population and economic growth. From 1990 to 2005, the country’s population grew 17%, from 27.7 million people to 32.3 million, while the gross domestic product rose 51.4%, in 2002 constant prices.

Economic activity growth can also lead to industries using more energy and producing more GHGs and air pollutants. Some large energy-consuming industries became more efficient, which offset some of the growth in GHGs. For instance, while the manufacturing industry reduced its energy requirements to produce a unit of goods and services by 33% from 1990 to 2002, energy use still rose 4%.

Greenhouse gases

GHGs occur naturally and help regulate the climate by trapping heat in the atmosphere and reflecting it back to the surface. GHG emissions from human activities amplify the natural greenhouse effect and contribute to climate change. Six GHGs are tracked by Canada’s GHG emissions indicator: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs). Canada’s GHG emissions increased about 25% from 1990 to 2005. In 1990, 596 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent were emitted, and in 2005, 747 megatonnes.

While the long-term trend points upwards, emissions stopped growing from 2003 to 2005, primarily as a result of reduced emissions from electricity generation. This reduction was the result of reduced coal and increased hydro and nuclear generation, lower demand for fuels because of warmer winters, and a reduced rate of increase in fossil fuel production.

Energy production and consumption accounted for most (82%) of Canada’s total GHG emissions in 2005. GHG emissions from the oil, gas and coal industry increased 48% from 1990 to 2005, as crude oil and natural gas production and export increased. GHG emissions from road transportation rose 33% in the same period, mainly because of a shift in consumer preference from automobiles to less fuel-efficient vehicles and an increase in heavy truck transport. GHG emissions from thermal–electric power and heat generation increased 37%, as electricity production rose to meet demand and more fossil fuels were used to generate electricity.

Air quality

Monitoring stations across Canada track air quality indicators for ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter, both key components of smog and two of the most pervasive and widespread air pollutants.

Ground-level ozone is formed by chemical reactions principally involving nitrogen oxides (NOX) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the presence of sunlight. The burning of fossil fuels in transportation, industry, and electricity generation and the production and use of paints, cosmetics, and solvents increase concentrations of NOXand VOCs, creating ground-level ozone.

Ozone exposure increased about 12% from 1990 to 2005, an average 0.8% increase per year. Concentrations increased 17% in southern Ontario and 15% in southern Quebec. In other regions, the ozone exposure showed no significant changes.

Fine particulate matter is emitted directly as a pollutant or is formed in the air as a secondary pollutant from sulphur dioxide, NOX, VOCs and ammonia. Most fine particulate matter emissions are a result of industry, wood burned for heating and transportation.

Canada’s exposure indicator for fine particulate matter showed no significant increase or decrease, either nationally or regionally, from 2000 to 2005.

Water quality

At least 115,000 tonnes of pollutants were directly discharged into Canada’s freshwater and coastal surface waters in 2005. Manufacturers, service providers, institutions and households discharge hundreds of different substances into rivers and lakes. Many pollutants make their way into water bodies indirectly, after being released into the air or onto the land.

Runoff from agricultural lands and urban areas, which often have high concentrations of nitrogen or phosphorous, can degrade water quality. Changes in water flows, snow melts and heavy rainfall can also harm water quality by, for example, increasing levels of suspended sediments that are often high in nutrients and metals.

Poor water quality affects aquatic life and human uses of water. For example, high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water may result in excessive aquatic plant growth, such as algal blooms, which reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen available for fish and other aquatic animals. Some algal blooms are toxic, killing livestock and harming shellfish.

The quality of Canada’s freshwater is measured using the Water Quality Index, an indicator that examines the extent to which water quality guidelines for the protection of aquatic life (plants, invertebrates and fish) are being met at selected lake and river monitoring sites throughout Canada.

Freshwater quality for 359 monitoring sites in southern Canada was rated as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ at 44% of the sites, ‘fair’ at 33%, and ‘marginal’ or ‘poor’ at 23%. Freshwater quality measured at 36 monitoring sites in northern Canada was rated as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ at 56% of the sites, ‘fair’ at 31%, and ‘marginal’ or ‘poor’ at 14%.