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The Relativism of Environmental Indicators

It has been 3 years since the last review of environmental indicators for Canada and BC – and of an assessment of how we compare to other jurisdictions around the world. If you arrived from another planet, reading a smattering of social media and headline news, you might conclude that our environment is deteriorating. Most commentators either don’t understand or refuse to acknowledge the role played by the structure of our economy and Canada’s pronounced dependence on its resource endowments and natural geographic advantages. We also happen to live in a vast nation with a harsh climate in many parts of the country. Geography and distance matter, population growth and density matter, as does place-specific climate and related weather factors.

Measuring environmental performance remains an emerging field. All published international comparative assessments should be viewed with some caution. Despite a lack of direct comparability, Canada and BC score better than many critics suggest, especially when viewed through a lens that pays attention to the factors of geography, population, and economic/industrial structure. There is work to be done to improve environmental performance over time in both Canada and BC, but it is wise to begin with a realistic and balanced starting point.

Highlights

  • Relativeness matters in all human endeavours. In the case of environmental indicators and performance measures, factors such as geography, population, and economic structure matter a lot. These are mostly ignored and assumed to be the same across all advanced economy jurisdictions in published analyses concerning environmental progress of Canada and its provinces/territories.  Thus, making comparisons of true performance difficult.
  • Canada’s size is hard to comprehend for those who don’t live here. The vast distances travelled to get goods and services to their intended market or to visit family, friends or business customers have few comparisons.  For example, no two points in the European Union — home to 500 million plus people — come close to the ~8,100 km distance from St John’s, Newfoundland to Winter Harbour, BC. Our total population and population density are 14 and 35 times smaller, respectively, than in the European Union, in a land mass that’s ~2.3 times bigger.
  • Canada’s climate is challenging and hugely variable given that our land area begins at the 42nd latitude and extends to the magnetic north. Between long distances and extreme temperature, Canadians use lots of energy for basic heating, cooling, and mobility.
  • Natural resources, dominated by energy and mineral resources, supply more than half of Canada’s merchandise exports, and industrial activity represents ~32% of GDP, more than in the European Union — competitiveness matters.
  • Our overall environmental performance is increasingly focused on greenhouse gas emissions, both in overall quantity and the intensity per unit of GDP … with the latter, arguably, serving as the current proxy measure for a country’s environmental virtue. But CO2e/unit of GDP does a poor job of capturing the nuance of energy exports and broader natural resource dependence where Canada has a huge international presence.
  • With the science and practice of environmental accounting still nascent, comparative international assessments must be viewed with caution.  Canada scores better than many critics suggest, particularly if the analysis dives below the surface of absolute quantities and considers all the attributes that make Canada unique or unusual relative to other advanced economy jurisdictions.

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