Assessing Canada’s Environmental Performance

Penny Becklumb
Tim Williams
Resources and Environment Section

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 as easily understood measures.

The Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators initiative, or CESI, is the federal government’s primary means of summarizing and communicating environmental information to Canadians.

Working with the provinces, territories and private organizations, the federal government monitors numerous aspects of Canada’s environment. Under the CESI initiative, the government uses this information to develop environmental indicators that convey information about air quality, water quality and quantity, and protecting nature.

Indicators of the State of Canada’s Environment

The CESI initiative shows that the state of Canada’s environment varies regionally, mainly the result of population concentrations, regional economic activities and geography.

Nationally, air quality is considered good, with levels of air pollutants remaining largely unchanged or decreasing over the last 15 years. However, in some regions, certain types of air pollution are increasing.

Air quality indicators are judged against the Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards, which are benchmarks that help people to understand the extent of an environmental risk. The results indicate that nationally, fine particulate matter and ozone pollution levels are lower than the standards, although levels of these pollutants exceed standards in some regions.

Freshwater quality in rivers where human activities are most concentrated also varies. While 45% of these rivers have excellent or good water quality, 37% have fair water quality and 18% have marginal or poor water quality.

Phosphorus levels in particular remain a concern in numerous water bodies, such as Lake Winnipeg and certain Great Lakes. The Great Lakes also have a number of Areas of Concern, which are typically sites of historic pollution that are targeted for remediation. On the whole, Canadian water quality is improving over time, with some regional disparities.

Regarding the protection of nature, the CESI initiative suggests that the risk statuses of species are getting worse or not improving. About 20% of species that have been assessed more than once have been put into higher risk categories than when they were first evaluated, while the risk category of 66% of species did not change between assessments. Only about 14% of species have seen their risk status improve.

The CESI website provides more information about the state of Canada’s environment.

Other environmental indicators

Environmental indicators are related to what the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development refers to as the “pressure-state-response” model for assessing environmental performance.

In this model, “human activities exert pressures on the environment and affect its quality and the quantity of natural resources (“state”); society responds to these changes through environmental, general economic and sectoral policies and through changes in awareness and behaviour … (“societal response”).”

Environmental indicators may describe any of these three aspects of environmental performance. The CESI environmental indicators described above are “state” indicators. The CESI initiative also includes indicators of environmental pressures and societal responses.

With respect to pressure indicators, emissions of greenhouse gases, fine particulate matter, including from open sources such as road building, and ammonia are growing, as are risks of water contamination from agricultural practices.

However, emissions of sulphur dioxide and heavy metals are decreasing, both success stories in policy implementation.

The extent of protected areas is an indicator of societal response. According to CESI, Canada’s protected areas have been increasing for the past 20 years. Currently, about 10% of Canada’s terrestrial area (including freshwater) and 1% of its marine territory are protected.

British Columbia has the highest percentage of protected areas (15.7%) and Prince Edward Island the lowest (2.8%). Protected areas tend to be smaller in the south and larger in the north.

The extent of Canada now protected can be compared against the benchmark of Canada’s aspirational commitment under the Convention on Biological Diversity to protect at least 17% of its terrestrial areas and 10% of its marine areas by 2020.

Environmental management

The CESI were created to feed in to environmental management decisions, as well as to fulfil certain legislative obligations to report on the environment and progress toward achieving the goals of the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy.

Environmental management occurs at all levels of government. For more information, consult the Library of Parliament publication entitled Federal and Provincial Jurisdiction to Regulate Environmental Issues.

The Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development audits the implementation of federal environmental policies.

Canada in the world

The CESI website includes international comparisons of urban air quality, air pollutant emissions, freshwater quality and protected areas. It shows that among certain developed countries, Canada has relatively high emissions of air pollutants per unit of economic output, yet urban air and water quality remain relatively good.

Canada has protected vast areas of its territory. But on a percentage basis it lags behind other countries, particularly with respect to its marine protected areas.

At least with respect to these examples, Canada would seem to perform relatively well when evaluating state indicators, but less so when comparing pressure and response indicators.

Related resources

Information about environmental monitoring is available in the 2011 December Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.

Statistics Canada publishes an annual report on Human Activity and the Environment.