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The health of Canadians and their social and economic well-being are highly dependent on the quality of their environment. One way to assess environmental quality is to use indicators that convey complex information in a simple form. The Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators (CESI) provide an indication of the health of our environment in much the same way as the gross domestic product (GDP) and other signals provide a sense of the health of the economy. Over the long term, the intent of the CESI initiative is to supplement traditional social and economic measures with information that will allow Canadians to better understand the relationships that exist among the economy, the environment and human health and well-being.

This is the third annual publication of the Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators report. It is the result of an ongoing collaboration between Environment Canada, Statistics Canada and Health Canada. It has also greatly benefited from the cooperation and input of all the provinces and territories, which share responsibility for environmental management in Canada. While there are policies and programs designed to address the issues tracked by the indicators, CESI reporting is not intended to provide a summary or evaluation of these policies and programs.

The report has the following three main components, which have been updated with 2005 data:

Air quality

The air quality indicators track measures of exposure of Canadians to ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter (PM2.5). These are key components of smog and two of the most pervasive and widely spread air pollutants. Exposure to these pollutants can be harmful. Both the ozone and PM2.5 exposure indicators are population-weighted average concentrations observed at monitoring stations across Canada during the warm season (April 1 to September 30) when ozone concentrations are normally highest and Canadians are most active outdoors.

Nationally, the ozone exposure indicator increased an average of 0.8% per year from 1990 to 2005. This resulted in an overall increase of 12% for this time period.1 In 2005, ozone concentrations were highest at stations in southern Ontario; southern Quebec and Alberta also had many stations with high concentrations. Between 1990 and 2005, the ozone exposure indicator increased in two regions—in southern Ontario by 17%2 and in southern Quebec by 15%.3 In other regions, the ozone exposure indicator showed no statistically significant increasing or decreasing trends.

The PM2.5 exposure indicator showed no statistically significant increasing or decreasing trends, either nationally or regionally between 2000 and 2005. The highest PM2.5 concentrations were measured at stations in southern Ontario and southern Quebec in 2005.

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 affected by the atmospheric transport of pollutants from other regions and countries and by weather conditions such as temperature and wind direction.

Greenhouse gas emissions

The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions indicator tracks annual Canadian releases of the six greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, perfluorocarbons and hydrofluorocarbons) that are the major contributors to climate change. The indicator comes directly from the National Inventory Report: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada, prepared annually by Environment Canada for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Environment Canada 2007a).

In 2005, Canada’s total GHG emissions were estimated to be 747 megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent, up 25% from 1990. This was 33% above the Kyoto Protocol target to be achieved in the period 2008 to 2012. Overall, energy production and consumption contributed about 82% of Canada’s total GHG emissions in 2005. From 1990 to 2005, these emissions rose by 29%, accounting for 90% of the growth in Canada’s total GHG emissions over the 16-year period.

Recently (2003 to 2005), the growth in GHG emissions has slowed, due primarily to a significant reduction in emissions from electricity production (reduced coal and increased hydro and nuclear generation), coupled with a reduced rate of increase in fossil fuel production and a reduced demand for heating fuels due to warm winters.

The amount of GHGs emitted per unit of economic activity was 17.8% lower in 2005 than in 1990. Increases in overall economic activity, however, resulted in increases in total energy use and GHG emissions.

Alberta and Ontario had the highest emissions of all provinces and territories in 2005 at an estimated 233 and 201 Mt respectively.

Freshwater quality

Water quality in Canada is under pressure from a range of sources, including human settlement, agriculture and industrial activities, and household behaviour. Degraded water quality can affect both aquatic life and human uses of water for industry, recreation, agriculture and as a source of drinking water.

This indicator, as a water quality index based on many chemical parameters, assesses surface freshwater quality with respect to protecting aquatic life (e.g., fish, invertebrates and plants). It provides a sensitive measure of the overall health of aquatic ecosystems. The indicator does not assess the quality of water for human consumption and use.  The national indicator is based on information gathered from 2003 to 2005 for southern Canada only. Northern sites are reported separately.

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%. Freshwater quality was also presented by major drainage areas, as a step toward characterizing regional water management challenges.

Phosphorus, a nutrient mainly derived from human activities and a key driver of the Water Quality Index (WQI), is a major concern for surface freshwater quality in Canada. Phosphorus levels in southern Canada exceeded limits set under the water quality guidelines for aquatic life over half the time at 127 of 344 monitoring sites.

Because of differences in water quality monitoring programs across Canada, a national trend is not yet available for this indicator. In addition, the indicator results do not reflect the quality of all fresh water in Canada as the monitoring sites are currently highly concentrated in certain parts of the country. Rather, they reflect the selected monitoring sites in southern and northern Canada that meet the CESI data quality criteria. Planned improvements to the monitoring networks, water quality guidelines and data analysis will permit a better assessment of surface water quality in the future. Work is under way to use available data to track significant national trends in freshwater quality. Other water quality indicators, information and analysis for drinking water sources, agricultural use and recreational use are also being developed as part of the freshwater quality indicator series.

Linking the indicators to society and the economy

An important goal of the CESI initiative is to examine the linkages between these environmental indicators and the socio-economic factors that influence indicator trends.

Population size, distribution and density play a major role in determining the impacts that human activities have on the environment. Between 1990 and 2005, Canada’s population grew by 17%, from 27.7 to 32.3 million people. With growing numbers of people living in and around urban areas, the potential for impacts on local and regional air and surface water quality is multiplied. From 1991 to 2006, urban populations increased by 21%, while rural populations decreased by 2%.

Growth in economic activity brings benefits in the form of increased income, but can also lead to greater pressure on the environment. For instance, economic growth has led to greater energy use by industries, which in turn has resulted in increased GHGs and air pollutants. Nevertheless, some large energy-consuming industries are becoming more energy-efficient, thereby offsetting some of the growth in emissions. For instance, the manufacturing industry reduced its energy requirements to produce a unit of goods and services by 33% between 1990 and 2002.4 However, total growth in sales of manufactured goods and services outpaced energy-efficiency improvements, resulting in an overall 4% increase in total manufacturing energy use.

Consumption behaviours also have an effect on the environment. For example, close to one fifth (17%) of the energy consumed in Canada is used directly by households to heat and power their homes, a fact that impacts both air quality and GHG emissions.

The 2006 Households and the Environment Survey, conducted under the CESI initiative, shows that, since 1994, Canadians’ environmental priorities and concerns have led to some changes in household behaviours.

  • Over 55% of Canadian households now use compact fluorescent bulbs. Between 1994 and 2006, the proportion using at least one compact fluorescent light bulb almost tripled.
  • Forty percent of households now have a programmable thermostat, more than double the number in 1994.  Of those households who owned this type of thermostat and who programmed it, two out of three turned down the heat at night.  On the other hand, 17% of the households equipped with programmable thermostats had not, in fact, programmed it.
  • Use of water-saving devices, such as water-saving showerheads and low-flow toilets, is increasing. For example, 54% of Canadian households reported having a water-saving showerhead as opposed to 42% in 1994. 

However, other behaviours observed through the survey indicate that environmental values are still competing with the practical realities of personal time use, comfort and convenience.

  • The use of chemical pesticides, which can affect water quality, was down only slightly in 2006 from 1994 levels. Also, over 39% of households flushed down the drain or put in the garbage their leftover pharmaceutical products.
  • During the warmer months, 73% of Canadians working outside the home travel to work by motor vehicle, 14% walk or cycle, and 10% use public transit. In colder months, the proportion of commuters who travel by car increases to 81%. In both seasons, well over half of all commuters travel alone to work in a motor vehicle. This has implications for both air quality and GHG emissions.

Improvements in this year’s report

This is the third annual Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators report. Key improvements in this year’s report are as follows:

Air quality

  • A regional break-down of the PM2.5 indicator
  • More interpretation of influencing factors

Greenhouse gas emissions

  • Improved estimation methods and more data on key variables used in the calculations

Freshwater quality

  • A breakdown of freshwater quality by Canada’s major drainage areas
  • A focus on phosphorous, a key freshwater pollutant that drives the freshwater quality indicator in many areas of Canada
  • An increased number of water-quality monitoring sites included in the indicator. In southern Canada, sites increased from 340 to 359, while in northern Canada, sites increased from 30 to 36 for 2007.

Linking the indicators to society and the economy

  • Incorporation of 2006 data from Statistics Canada’s Households and the Environment Survey, which describes some of the household behaviours that can affect the three indicators
  • Incorporation of 2005 data from Statistics Canada’s Industrial Water Survey, which describes water usage by the primary, manufacturing and thermal-electric industries

Improving the integration of environmental and socio-economic information

The long-term goal of CESI is to examine and highlight the linkages between this report’s three indicators and socio-economic issues to enable decision making that better takes into account environmental sustainability. To this end, complementary information tools have been developed and further improvements to the indicators are planned.

Work is continuing to further develop the individual indicators, with more robust analyses to track changes, and with improvements to make the indicators more understandable, relevant and useful to decision makers and the public. All of the indicators will benefit from recent and planned improvements to environmental monitoring systems driven by the CESI initiative. In particular, the freshwater indicator will benefit from new and updated scientific water quality guidelines currently under development, and the scope of the indicator will be broadened to include other beneficial water uses. Improved data management and better analytical methods are also being developed.

To provide important contextual information that can assist in interpreting the indicators, Statistics Canada is developing and delivering new surveys of business and household actions affecting the environment. This year’s CESI report includes data from the first two such surveys to be completed: the 2006 Households and the Environment  Survey and the 2005 Industrial Water Survey. Other surveys under CESI will include an agricultural water use survey and a municipal water survey.

Online tools are already enabling users to examine regional and sectoral details and to conduct their own analyses. To further support independent research and analysis, Environment Canada has developed an interactive website that allows users to examine the indicator data in more detail. In addition, Statistics Canada has developed a report on socio-economic information that contains supporting information for CESI. The report provides a wide range of contextual information on the human activities that can influence the indicators.

The Government of Canada website and the Statistics Canada website both provide electronic versions of this report and access to additional information and online analytical tools related to the indicators.


  1. Plus or minus 10 percentage points, resulting in an increase ranging from 2% to 22% at a 90% confidence level.
  2. Plus or minus 13 percentage points, resulting in an increase ranging from 4% to 30% at a 90% confidence level.
  3. Plus or minus 12 percentage points, resulting in an increase ranging from 3% to 27% at a 90% confidence level.
  4. Uses real gross output (the value of an industry’s sales corrected for inflation) to calculate energy intensity.