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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Taking the measure of Canada's environmental performance Add to ...

Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the rounds at the Davos economic conference yesterday, and made headlines at home for his first visit there. Elsewhere, away from the headlines, the news at Davos was not at all good for Canada.

Environmental researchers, led by those at Yale and Columbia universities (with an assist from those at the University of British Columbia) released at Davos the world's Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a complicated, ambitious effort to rank 163 countries in the world on a range of environmental policies and results.

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A rich country such as Canada should be in the top tier, in theory, with such countries as Sweden, Norway, Finland, Britain, New Zealand and Germany. But instead, Canada scored a middling 46th place. Put another chink, therefore, in Canadians' overweening moral superiority, especially the country's misplaced self-perception as an excellent custodian of the environment.

The EPI's authors acknowledged their work contains methodological gaps. They need more data from some countries. It's often hard to compare data. The difference between countries that stood close together in the table was often negligible. Theirs is hardly the last word on comparative environmental performance. But they amassed as much information as they could about 25 environmental issues, and presented their findings at Davos.

Canada scores very well on some EPI indicators. In water, forestry and agricultural practices, Canada stands at or near the top. The forestry results are especially encouraging, since they give the lie to the old bad rap against the country's forestry practices, many of which have improved in recent years. Canada also generally doesn't have major health problems that stem from environmental laxity.

Indeed, if the country had scored as well in every category, Canada might be up there in the top five on the EPI Index with Iceland, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Sweden and Norway. The weaknesses, however, are evident and of long standing, and they relate both to federal and provincial governments.

You can guess - can't you? - which environmental result destroyed Canada's standing. Of 163 countries measured, Canada's greenhouse gas emissions per capita ranked 151st. We were better - bravo! - than Qatar, Bahrain, Trinidad and Tobago, the Central African Republic and eight other miscreant countries, but we were beaten by 150 others, including all the industrialized countries except Australia.

These and other numbers were compiled from 2007 and 2008 data, so the numbers are a little out of date. But nothing Canada did on greenhouse gases in 2009 would suggest an improvement from our 151st-place finish.

Another killer was another old Canadian bugbear: fisheries conservation, where of 127 countries measured, Canada stood 125th. But, then, fisheries scientists almost everywhere in Canada have long lamented the lack of fisheries protection. Entire species have been wiped out; others have been fished into a precarious state.

Interest groups, provincial governments and coastal communities pound the hapless minister of fisheries to allow more catching, with sad results. How often have we heard and seen fishing interests blame everyone but themselves for the situation?

The United States, for example, scores lower overall on the EPI index than Canada, but finishes way ahead in fisheries, in part because of a federal law that obligates the government to regulate fisheries on a sustainable basis, period. It's not an objective, as in Canada, but the law.

New Zealand, Australia and Iceland fare much better in protecting fisheries, in part because they use catch quotas, or individual transferable quotas as they are sometimes called. These are used in some Canadian fisheries, but by no means all. Others are still under the outdated and often destructive common property regime.

Canada comes 80th on preserving biodiversity and habitat, a very mediocre score for a rich country. For a country with one of the world's most breathtaking pieces of geography, Canada stands 140th in preserving the vitality of ecosystems. The country stands an embarrassing 146th in sulphur dioxide emissions and 147th in nitrous oxide emissions. (Think of those coal-fired plants, among other sources.)

Okay, the EPI index is a long way from being perfect in measuring environmental performance. It will likely get better with time and more work.

Will Canada's overall environment get better with time and more work? We can only hope so.

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