Canada's growing population and its environmental influence, 1956 to 2006
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Humanity's impact on the environment is complex—affluence and technology affect how we interact with our natural environment.1,2 Human population growth—the focus of this analysis, is another important factor. The more people there are, the larger the potential impact on the environment. In this analysis, we look at the influence of population on the environment. Future articles in this bulletin will examine the implications of affluence and technology in more detail.
This analysis presents data on Canadian population growth from 1956 to 2006. To illustrate how our growing population has an influence on the environment, the paper also looks at the number of road motor vehicles registered over time, one example of how population growth, combined with growing affluence and technological change have influenced our environment.
In 2006, approximately 6.5 billion people lived on the planet, up considerably from the 2.8 billion in 1956 (+130%). At a national level, Canada's population growth has risen at a slower pace than the global average. Between 1956 and 2006, Canada's population almost doubled from 16 million to 31.6 million people (Chart 1).
The highest growth rates occurred in the late 1950s and early 1960s (Chart 2). During the baby boom years of the fifties and sixties, increased fertility, lower death rates and increased immigration levels helped to increase Canada's population growth.3 The post-baby boom decline in fertility and the increase in deaths due to population aging have both played a role in slowing the pace of population growth substantially.4
Most of the population increase in the last half-century occurred in Ontario, but rates of growth were strongest in parts of northern and western Canada
Over the last fifty years, population growth varied widely from province to province. Ontario experienced the largest absolute growth between 1956 and 2006, with the population rising by approximately 6.8 million people, almost 45% of the gain for the entire country. With 2.9 million more people in 2006 than in 1956, Quebec ranked second overall in terms of absolute gains. British Columbia and Alberta followed with increases of 2.7 million and 2.2 million people respectively.
In terms of rates of growth, the three territories, followed by British Columbia and Alberta had the largest increases (Chart 3). The population in the north more than tripled over the last half-century and there were substantial increases in British Columbia and Alberta as well.
The growth rate was lowest in Saskatchewan, where population rose by only 10%. Other provinces with relatively low rates included Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In recent years, these four provinces experienced declines in population. For example, in Newfoundland and Labrador, the population dropped by 7% between 1996 and 2001—the largest provincial five-year decline.
Every day, Canadians engage in activities that place pressures on the environment. Some environmental impacts are more proportional to population growth while others are less so. For instance, drinking water consumption typically rises proportionally with population. However, water use for residential, commercial and industrial purposes can increase at higher rates than population as a result of increased economic activity.
Transportation's impact on the environment is not strictly proportional to population, but also affected by affluence and technology. Below is an illustration of the influence of population growth on the use of road motor vehicles, such as cars, trucks, minivans, sport utility vehicles, buses, and motorcycles.
Effects of population growth—more people mean more road vehicles
Driving has many environmental impacts, including air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, the use of raw materials and energy to manufacture cars, and the loss of wildlife habitat to develop road networks. With increases in Canada's population, there has been an expansion in the number of vehicles on the road. This, in turn, has increased pressure on the environment.
Between 1956 and 2006 the number of vehicles in Canada increased by 15.8 million, while the population grew by about 15.5 million people (Chart 4). In terms of growth rates, the number of motor vehicles increased by 370%, well in excess of population growth (97%).
The national growth in cars and trucks outpaced population growth particularly during the late fifties, sixties and early seventies, when the 5-year growth rates of vehicle registrations were at least 15 percentage points higher than the growth rates for population (Chart 5). In recent years, there has been more similar growth in both population and vehicle registrations.
Population and road motor vehicle registration growth rates, Canada, 5-year percentage change, 1956 to 2006
Ontario had the largest fifty-year growth in both population and vehicles. The southern portion of the province is also well-known for its transportation-related air pollution problems. For instance, between 1990 and 2004, southern Ontario had the highest concentrations and fastest rise of ground-level ozone5 in the country.6
However, in terms of growth rates, Ontario's vehicle registrations increased slower than the national rate, but population grew faster than the national rate (Chart 6). The fastest growth rates in both population and vehicles occurred in the territories, followed by Alberta.
Population and road motor vehicle registration growth rates, Canada and provinces/territories, 1956 to 2006
From the postwar era onwards, vehicle ownership rates were spurred on by relatively low prices for vehicles and gasoline, and improved road systems such as expressways. Technological advances including efficiencies in manufacturing processes, including mechanized assembly lines, assisted in reducing the cost of automobiles. Socio-economic factors such as higher household incomes, smaller-sized households, and more women in the workforce meant that more Canadian families could afford to buy and operate vehicles.7
The rate of growth of vehicle registrations began to decline in the latter half of the 1970s (Chart 5). One possible reason for this was that the number of vehicles per household was approaching saturation—there are only so many vehicles that Canadian households need or want. For instance, in 1956, there were just under four persons per vehicle in Canada. By 1976, the number of persons per vehicle declined to under two, and has remained between 1.5 and 2 persons per vehicle ever since.
More specifically, in 2006, 83% of Canadian households owned or leased a motor vehicle. Almost half of households with cars or trucks reported having one, whereas 39% reported having two and the remaining 12% reported having 3 or more.8 Another possible reason for the slower growth in vehicle registration was the rising costs related to purchasing and operating a vehicle.
A future article will discuss how technology can help offset environmental impacts. Advances in technology related to vehicles and fuels have led to decreased emissions from road transportation. Between 1990 and 2005, nitrogen oxides emitted from road vehicles decreased 39%, while volatile organic compounds (VOC) decreased 60%.9 However, even with technological improvements, from 1990 to 2005, greenhouse gas emissions from road transportation increased 33% to 135 Mt of CO2 equivalent.10
Over the last fifty years, Canada's population has doubled. This increase in population has had environmental consequences. However, numerous other factors also influence Canadians' impact on the environment, which makes determining the influence of population growth more challenging. Population growth is an important piece of the puzzle for understanding our impact on the environment; however, it must be considered in conjunction with the other pieces.
- In the early 1970s Ehrlich and Holdren devised a simple equation, in dialogue with Commoner, identifying three factors that created environmental impact. Thus, impact (I) was expressed as the product of population (P), affluence (A), and technology (T). (See Chertow, 2001).
- Marion Chertow, 2001, "The IPAT Equation and Its Variants: Changing Views of Technology and Environmental Impact," Journal of Industrial Ecology, Vol. 4, p. 13-29. mitpress.mit.edu/journals/pdf/jiec_4_4_13_0.pdf (accessed May 15, 2007).
- Statistics Canada, 2007, Portrait of the Canadian Population in 2006, 2006 Census, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 97-550-XIE, www12.statcan.ca/english/census06/analysis/popdwell/pdf/97-550-XIE2006001.pdf (accessed May 14, 2007).
- Statistics Canada, Portrait of the Canadian Population in 2006.
- Human activities contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone by increasing the concentrations of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. Road motor vehicles are a key source of these two pollutants.
- Environment Canada, Statistics Canada and Health Canada, 2006, Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators 2006, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 16-251-XWE, Ottawa.
- Statistics Canada, 2006, Human Activity and the Environment: Annual Statistics, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 16-201-XIE, /pub/16-201-x/16-201-x2006000-eng.pdf (accessed April 23, 2006).
- Statistics Canada, 2007, Households and the Environment, 2006, Catalogue no. 11-526-XIE, Ottawa.
- Environment Canada, 2007, Criteria Air Contaminants, www.ec.gc.ca/pdb/cac/Emissions1990-2015/emissions_e.cfm (accessed May 17, 2007).
- Environment Canada, 2007, National Inventory Report: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada, 1990-2005, Greenhouse Gas Division, Ottawa, Ontario.
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