Environmental Issues in Canada: A Cautionary tale  

Canada is primarily defined by its size, as the second-largest country in the world, and sparse population, but in northernmost Canada, only 12 percent of the land is suitable for agriculture due to the harsh climate.

By Veeno Dewan

Canada is primarily defined by its size, as the second-largest country in the world, and sparse population, but in northernmost Canada, only 12 percent of the land is suitable for agriculture due to the harsh climate. Despite the picture postcard images of pristine Canadian lakes, spectacular mountain ranges, and broad vistas, Canada is in no way immune from environmental issues.  With the Arctic warming faster than any other biome recently, Canadians are particularly concerned about the impacts of climate change. The environment is a hot topic, encompassing such issues as the impact of oil and gas production, mining, intensive farming, land use and water use degradation, habitat destruction, and urban sprawl. It’s almost a form of Environmental racism, a concept coined by the environmental justice movement, which developed throughout the 1970s and 1980s in the United States. The term is used to describe environmental injustice that occurs in practice and in the policy. The primary environment issues for Canada are as follows:

Air Pollution

Environment Canada has singled out air pollution as a significant concern as it affects wildlife, vegetation, soil, and water. In Canada. A large amount of the population lives in urban areas, and its cities are notorious for their poor air quality, particularly in summer, when the carbon emission from vehicles and smoke from wildfires impacts cities such as Vancouver, and other urban areas in the Western provinces. Air pollution from urban areas causes acid rain and contributes to climate change by an essential factor.

Oil Sand Production

The oil and gas industries account for a quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the oil sands mainly based in Alberta as being the most carbon producing intensively. Oil sand extraction results in the use of vast amounts of water, in addition to the accumulation of large amounts of residual waste known as tailings, which contain a mixture of water, clay, un-recovered bitumen and solvent, and dissolved chemicals, including some toxic organic compounds. These tailings are stored in large ponds similar to water dams.

Pipelines

The oil extracted in Alberta’s oil sands reserves is a critical environmental issue.  Shipped in pipelines in its bitumen raw form, the debate about whether Canada should build new pipelines is still ongoing due to worries about climate change, pipeline leaks, oil tanker spills, and First Nations rights. As oil companies look to grow in the oil sands, they need to expand their capacity to ship the oil around the world.

One of the most high-profile pipeline debates has centered on the Keystone XL pipeline. It would have shipped oil from the oil sands to refineries in the United States. In 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama officially rejected the Keystone XL pipeline. But President Donald Trump has revived the pipeline. The Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline was proposed for nearly 10 years but is dead. In 2017, the Trudeau government approved the twinning of the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver. The B.C. government and First Nations have challenged it in court, a challenge was thrown out in 2019. Other planned pipeline proposals such as the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and Energy East pipeline have been abandoned.

Despite the picture postcard images of pristine Canadian lakes, spectacular mountain ranges, and wide vistas, Canada is in no way immune from environmental issues.  With the Arctic warming faster, Canadians are particularly concerned about the impacts of climate change.

Coal extraction

Coal mines are essential for Canada’s energy needs. Canada produced 67.3 million tons of coal in 2005, 56 million tons of which were used for energy purposes. Canada is responsible for shipping large amounts of fuel overseas. Burning coal is a significant climate change concern because it is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Canada still uses coal to generate some of its electricity. Coal export facilities on Canada’s Pacific coast are pushing for an expansion to export thermal coal. While the coal industry is a significant source of Canadian income, it is associated with massive amounts of carbon emissions.

Mining

Canada is home to 75 percent of the world’s mining companies. And reports about intimidation, exploitation, deaths and the rapes of workers employed by Canadian companies around the world, have not done the industry any favors. They’re not doing so well on the environmental front either. Contamination of water bodies from mining tailings pond and dam failures has become commonplace. In 2014 the Mount Polley tailings dam failure in British Columbia captured worldwide attention for the scale of the disaster. Mines produce toxic by-products such as acid rock drainage, a process by which crushed rock reacts with air and water to produce acids. They can then leach heavy metals from the rock and contaminate water sources. It remains a persistent problem in and around mine sites, lasting potentially thousands of years.

Dams

Hydroelectricity is the number one source of energy in Canada. The country produces more hydropower than any country besides China, and most of that comes from traditional dams. Dams are considered “clean” energy because they do not need fossil fuels to operate. But they still have serious environmental consequences. In producing the reservoir, the dams flood large swaths of land. That can destroy farmland, and archaeological sites and even force the relocation of towns and villages. Damming also produces methane and carbon dioxide as the flooded vegetation decomposes. In some cases, a dam can provide even more carbon than a traditional thermal power plant.  Hydropower has impacts downstream as well as affecting fish habitats, spawning, and migration patterns.

Salmon Farming and Whale habitats

One would think that with Canada’s abundant coastlines, fish habitats are doing well. Not so, the disruption of overfishing, pollution, and crowded waters are having a detrimental effect on fish and whales. In B.C. wild salmon and whale have been the backbone of Indigenous food systems for millennia and are being adversely affected.  Whales need fish such as salmon to survive, and so any reduction or overfishing results in adverse changes to the whale population. In the case of salmon, huge demand and overfishing have led to the creation of salmon farms off the coast of British Columbia. Fish farms breed hundreds of thousands of fish in floating farms using open net pens. It is well documented that these farms produce diseases like Infectious Salmon Anemia, sea lice, and Piscine Reovirus, and can be passed on to wild population of salmon if farmed fish escape.  Any increase in oil tanker traffic due to increased LNG or pipeline oils would lead to a rise in spills so further affecting fish habitats environmentalist say.

Water Use

Canada is home to an abundance of freshwater, being a vast country, Canada has a wide range of water ecosystems. Lakes and rivers cover 7 percent of the country. While annual snow melts from mountains also add volume.  But the World Wildlife Fund has raised concerns about water usage and the damming of Canadian rivers. The WWF noted that Canada uses inordinately large amounts of water for industry agriculture, industry, and consumption. The conservation organization said Canada moves more water from one watershed to another than any other country in the world, and this activity can be devastating to ecosystems.

Environmental Policies of Canada

With the Arctic Circle on its doorstep, Canada’s clean future largely depends on how the country regulates its large and growing fossil fuel extraction industries. Experiencing many of the effects of climate change first-hand, Canada has enacted numerous policies aimed at combating emissions. The Canadian Environmental Protection Act was introduced in 1999 to combat specific to air pollutants and has had many amendments and additions since its introduction.

To tackle greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector, the Canadian government has banned the creation of new coal-fired power plants. Ontario has already banned coal use, and Alberta has committed to phasing out coal-fired electricity generation by 2030. The government has also passed regulations that mandate lower vehicle emissions and now promotes more efficient fuel usage in the form of incentives for hybrid and electric car buyers. In 2016 they introduced the Multi-sector Air Pollutants Regulations to limit the number of nitrogen oxides (NOx) emitted from gaseous fuel-fired non-utility boilers, heaters, and stationary spark-ignition gaseous fuel-fired engines.

Canada’s clean future largely depends on how the country regulates its large and growing fossil fuel extraction industries. Experiencing many of the effects of climate change first-hand, Canada has to boost its enacted numerous policies aimed at combating emissions.

Canada has also reached numerous environmental agreements with the international community. Canada was the first developed nation to ratify the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity. By this treaty, Canada’s governments have moved to safeguard almost 10 percent of Canada’s land mass and 3 million hectares of ocean. The federal government has invested $1.8 billion in clean technology, and Canada has also signed some waste management treaties, including the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals. Canada is also involved in major international environmental organizations, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation.

But further work still needs to be done, while the oil sands industry has made significant technological advances, the growth of annual production of oil sands still presents several environmental challenges to land, water, air, and energy conservation. The government of Canada is also yet determined to push through the Trans Mountain pipeline project despite opposition from indigenous and conservation groups.

Information sources from: Environment Canada/ StatsCan/the Narwhal/Canviroment/Green Canada