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Connecting the indicators

Linking the indicators and connecting them to other socio-economic and environmental information can guide policy decisions that better address economic performance, quality of life, and environmental sustainability. This first report offers a limited analysis of these connections. In future reports, the analysis will be strengthened as the indicators are improved, additional information (e.g., from surveys) is added, and the analytical tools are developed to make the links quantitative and more closely tied to policy analysis. This report focuses on building the foundation of environmental information required to compile the indicators. Details of the social and economic dimensions still need to be added to this base.

The indicators span a range of concerns: local water and air quality may change from year to year, while greenhouse gas emissions and the related issue of climate change evolve globally over decades. Despite these differences, they are connected in fundamental ways:

  • Some of the same substances are involved.
  • Some of the same economic forces drive the changes in the indicators.
  • The indicators reflect stresses in the same regions of the country.

For example, the pollutants that combine to form ground-level ozone (nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds) are emitted from transportation and energy production—activities that are essential to Canadians' lifestyles but that are also major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. In turn, nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides, both by-products of burning fossil fuels, fall as acid precipitation. This affects the water in sensitive lakes and rivers, notably in parts of eastern Canada, and harms their aquatic organisms (Environment Canada 2005b).

Agricultural fertilizer use and poor manure management have been linked to high concentrations of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, in some water bodies (Environment Canada 2001). Agricultural activities also contribute to emissions of methane and nitrous oxide, both potent greenhouse gases (Environment Canada 2005a).

With the water quality data now available, it is impossible to identify precisely the regions of Canada where the stresses on aquatic systems are greatest. In future reports, it should be possible to determine where these regions are and whether they coincide with areas exposed to high concentrations of air pollutants, including ground-level ozone and other components of smog. It should also be possible to better describe the influence of transboundary pollution flows on the Canadian air and water quality indicators.

Federal government reports (e.g., Lemmen and Warren 2004) have concluded that Canada may face environmental, economic and social costs if domestic and international efforts fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Effects on water resources could include reduced water supply and diminished water quality, although these would vary among regions. If extreme weather events become more frequent and intense, damage to settlements and agricultural crops could be severe. Forest productivity and wildlife could be harmed. Continually increasing emissions could lead to pollution-related health problems, heat-related morbidity and mortality, and higher incidence of water-borne and vecto-borne diseases.

Even though the indicators are interconnected, they tell different stories. For example, the air quality indicator examines links to human health. In contrast, the preliminary water quality indicator in this report is focused on protection of aquatic life.

One part of the economic dimension of the indicators is the cost associated with reducing water and air pollution. For example, governments, businesses and households need to spend to treat the water that they plan to use, and then spend again to reduce their impact on that water. Statistics Canada (2004) estimated that Canadian businesses invested $428 million in 2002 to prevent and control water pollution. Significantly more was invested that same year on protecting air quality: $1,531 million. Further reducing the impacts of businesses on water and air pollution could raise costs for Canadian firms.

Another key consideration is the socio-economic cost of the pollution itself. For example, Health Canada has estimated, based on data from eight cities (Québec, Montréal, Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Windsor, Calgary and Vancouver), that 5,900 premature deaths each year in these cities are attributable to air pollution (Judek et al. 2004). Economists have tried to estimate the social costs of poor health due to air pollution. A monetary estimate of all the health impacts—health care costs, lost productivity, and pain and suffering—runs to the billions of dollars per year in Canada (Chestnut et al. 1999).

In future reports, the linkages between the environmental indicators and socio-economic information will be strengthened. Measuring the efficiency of energy use is of particular interest because of the multiple benefits: lower economic cost, less air pollution and acid precipitation, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Future work will also focus on modelling the benefits of cleaner air and water and anticipating the effects of climate change. This work will aid in the development of policies that combine economic and social perspectives with those of environmental sustainability.

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Date modified: 2005-12-14 Important Notices
Online catalogue Main page Executive summary Introduction Findings Conclusion Figures and maps Methods and data quality References More information PDF version Related products Online catalogue: Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators: Socio-economic Information