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Online catalogue: Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators: Socio-economic Information Related products PDF version Online catalogue Main page Executive summary Introduction Findings Conclusion Figures and maps Methods and data quality List of acronyms References More information

Executive summary

Canadians’ health and their social and economic well-being are fundamentally linked to the quality of their environment. Recognizing this, in 2004, the Government of Canada committed to reporting annually on national indicators of air quality, greenhouse gas emissions and freshwater quality. The goal of these indicators is to provide Canadians with more regular and consistent information on the state of their environment and how it is linked with human activities. Environment Canada, Statistics Canada and Health Canada are working together to further develop and report on these indicators. Reflecting the joint responsibility for environmental management in Canada, this effort has benefited from the cooperation and input of the provinces and territories.

The following are the three main components of the Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators (CESI):

  • Air quality: The national air quality indicators in this report focus on human exposure to ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter (PM2.5, both key components of smog. Human exposure to ground-level ozone and PM2.5 is of concern because there are no established thresholds below which these pollutants are safe and do not pose a risk to human health.

    At the national level, from 1990 to 2004, the ozone indicator showed year-to-year variability, with an average increase of 0.9% per year. Stations in southern Ontario reported the highest levels in the country in 2004 and the most rapid increase since 1990. From 2000 to 2004, the highest levels of PM2.5 were also reported in southern Ontario, with areas in southern Quebec/eastern Ontario also showing high levels. There was no discernible upward or downward trend in PM2.5 levels at the national level for the 2000 to 2004 period.

    Human activities contributing to air pollution include the use of motor vehicles, fossil fuel combustion for residential and industrial purposes, thermal-electric power generation and wood burning for residential home heating. Air quality is also influenced by the atmospheric transport of pollutants from other regions and by weather conditions.

    Health Canada is researching the feasibility of developing and reporting an integrated environment and health indicator (Air Health Indicator) that would be based on the combined health risks of exposure to several air pollutants, including particulate matter and ozone.

  • Greenhouse gas emissions: The greenhouse gas emissions indicator focuses on total national emissions of greenhouse gases. Emissions rose 27% from 1990 to 2004. In 2004, emissions were 35% above the target to which Canada committed in December 2002 when it ratified the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - 6% below the 1990 baseline by the period 2008 to 2012. Thermal-electric power generation, road vehicle use and oil and gas production were the principal sources of the increase in emissions. While total emissions rose, emissions per unit of Gross Domestic Product fell 14% from 1990 to 2004. The expansion of the Canadian economy, however, more than offset gains in fuel and emissions efficiency, resulting in a net increase in total emissions. Over the same period, greenhouse gas emissions also grew faster than the Canadian population, resulting in a 10% rise in emissions per person.
  • Freshwater quality: Good-quality fresh water is fundamental to ecosystems, human health and economic performance. Freshwater quality in Canada is under pressure from a range of sources, including agriculture, industrial activity and human settlements.

    The freshwater quality indicator presented in this report covers the period from 2002 to 2004 and focuses only on the ability of Canada’s surface waters to support aquatic life. For the 340 sites selected across southern Canada, water quality was rated as “good” or “excellent” at 44% of sites, “fair” at 34% and “marginal” or “poor” at 22%.

    Because of issues of consistency in water quality monitoring programs across Canada, a national trend is not yet available for this indicator. The indicator results do not reflect the quality of all fresh water in Canada. They apply to selected monitoring sites in southern Canada, northern Canada and the Great Lakes that met the CESI data quality criteria. Improvements planned to the monitoring networks, the water quality guidelines and the analysis will enable a better assessment of surface water quality in the future.

In summary, the three indicators reported here individually provide important information—about Canada’s environmental sustainability, the health and well-being of citizens, as well as the consequences of our economic growth and lifestyle choices. The air quality, greenhouse gas emissions and freshwater quality indicators are also connected in fundamental ways:

  • Some of the same forces are driving the phenomena measured by the indicators.
  • Some of the same substances are involved.
  • The same regions of the country show the greatest stress.

Reporting these indicator results as a set, integrated with other information on the environment, measures of economic performance and indices of social progress, is challenging. The “Connecting the indicators” chapter of this report represents a first step in this direction. The long-term goal is to enable decision-making that fully accounts for environmental sustainability.

Improvements in the report

This is the second of an annual set of reports on the CESI. Key improvements in this year’s report are as follows:

Air quality

  • Inclusion of the PM2.5 indicator
  • More refined statistical analysis of indicator trends

Greenhouse gas emissions

  • Better estimation methods and more data on key variables used in the calculations
  • Inclusion of final demand category data and analysis from Statistics Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Account

Freshwater quality

  • Calculation of the indicator for selected monitoring sites in northern Canada that met data quality standards established to reflect northern conditions
  • Further information on the main threats to surface freshwater quality in Canada

Connecting the indicators

  • Analysis of the socio-economic context and an initial attempt to identify the economic forces influencing the three indicators

The individual indicators continue to be developed, with increasingly robust analyses to track changes. Improvements are being implemented to make the indicators more understandable, relevant and useful to decision-makers and the public. They will benefit in the future from better environmental monitoring, new scientific knowledge and guidelines, improved data management and better analytical methods. New surveys of business and household actions affecting the environment will provide information to assist in interpreting the indicator trends. Online tools are being developed that will enable users to examine regional and sectoral details and conduct their own analyses.

The Government of Canada website ( and the Statistics Canada website (/) provide electronic versions of this report and access to additional information related to the indicators.

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