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New study ranks Canada’s environmental record near middle of OECD pack

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A new study ranks Canada 12th out of 33 high-income countries on a wide range of environmental indicators that relate both to the protection of human health, such as air pollution, and the preservation of Canada’s ecosystems, such as water quality. 

Canada ranks 12th overall with a score of 67 out of a possible 100 on a list of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries that produced an average score of 62.2. 

Many of the top-ranked countries in this second edition of the study’s list are clustered closely together. For example, Canada and 2nd place New Zealand (which scored 74.7) are less than eight points apart. Sweden ranks 1st with a score of 80, while South Korea came in last at 41.4. 

“The reality is most wealthy, developed countries have established sound environmental protection systems, and Canada compares favourably,” said Elmira Aliakbari, associate director of environment studies at the Fraser Institute and co-author of the Environmental Ranking for Canada and the OECD, in an announcement to media. 

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The Fraser Institute, an independent, non-partisan Canadian policy think-tank, determined that for some critical categories, Canada ranks particularly high, including 1st and 4th best on two separate air quality measures, and 4th best in fertilizer use and 8th best for low-emissions electricity production, namely electricity generated by nuclear power and renewable energy sources. 

Under the heading of protecting human health and well-being, the study examined air quality, water quality, and greenhouse gases. Under the objective of protecting ecosystems, the study considered six core categories: air emissions, water resources, forests, biodiversity, agriculture, and fisheries. 

For water quality, Canada ranks 13th out of 33 countries based on the two indicators that assess the health risks posed by water pollution: access to improved sanitation facilities and access to improved water sources. 

Canada ranks 19th for its wastewater treatment rate (the Netherlands topped the ranking) and 4th for the intensity of use of its water resources. On the latter measure, only Iceland, Latvia, Norway, the Slovak Republic, and Luxembourg perform better than Canada, the study found. 

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Index of environmental performance. Click to enlarge. Image credit: Fraser Institute.

For greenhouse gases, Canada ranks 31st and 21st, respectively, for its carbon intensity (CO2 emissions per unit of GDP) and its ability to reduce its carbon intensity over a decade. However, it ranks 8th based on low-emissions electricity production, which measures the share of total electricity generated by low-emitting sources of energy — that is, renewables and nuclear. 

“The main implication of this report is that Canada is not the environmental laggard that has been claimed in the past,” the report’s authors state. “Canadians enjoy high levels of environmental quality in absolute terms and in comparison to our OECD peers. In specific areas where our ranking is low it is sometimes an unavoidable result of our geography or climate, and in other cases it reflects the tight distribution of outcomes among the world’s wealthiest nations,” the authors add. 

The Fraser Institute suggests that reports in recent years have presented Canada as an environmental laggard, ranking it near the bottom of the list of OECD countries. In particular, a 2016 report by the Conference Board of Canada compared environmental performance to 15 peer countries, awarding Canada a “D” grade and a ranking of 14th out of 16. Likewise, a report by the David Suzuki Foundation in 2010 concluded that Canada’s record was among the worst of developed countries, placing it 24th out of 25 countries. A 2001 study by University of Victoria researcher David Boyd, titled Canada vs. the OECD: An Environmental Comparison, concluded that Canada had a very poor environmental record, ranking 28th out of 29 developed countries. 

“We regard the methodologies behind these studies as flawed as they unfairly represent Canada’s environmental performance in some respects and do not always use the most meaningful and relevant performance measures,” states the Fraser Institute study. 

The study was released April 21, the day prior to Earth Day. Read the full report here.

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