Canadians have much to celebrate this Earth Day. According to a new study, despite misguided claims to the contrary, Canada has an excellent environmental record when compared to most of the world’s wealthiest—and cleanest—countries.
The study published by the Fraser Institute compares and ranks 33 high-income countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on a wide range of measures including air and water quality, greenhouse gases and biodiversity. The study provides an aggregate score (zero to 100.0) across 17 indicators to provide an easy way to understand Canada’s performance compared to other wealthy countries.
Overall, Canada ranks 10th with a score of 68.5 (out of 100)—well above the OECD average (62.9) and only five points behind third place New Zealand. Sweden ranks first overall with a score of 78.9.
Unfortunately, previous studies by other organizations used narrow and often mistaken methods, which placed Canada near the bottom of OECD countries in terms of environmental performance, unfairly casting Canada in a negative light.
For example, many of these studies failed to connect environmental measures to things people value. For instance, a study by the Conference Board of Canada used air emissions per person to measure air quality, but ignored the fact that a few large industrial operations in some Canadian provinces (the oilsands, for example) can skew this measure, painting a distorted picture about the air quality changes in urban areas where most people live.
The Conference Board report also looked at waste generation—without accounting for disposal methods. Subsequently, the report ranked equally two countries that produced the same amount of waste regardless of where the garbage wound up. The way waste is handled—not necessarily how much is produced—is a better measure of environmental protection.
For our study, we started from scratch, using a comprehensive and transparent methodology based on an environmental index developed by academics at Yale and Columbia universities, allowing us to compare Canada’s environmental performance with other OECD countries on measures that matter most to the health of people and the ecosystem.
Again, our analysis ranks Canada among the cleanest of the clean.
For example, Canada’s performance on greenhouse gases—a topic of much misunderstanding. Using the methodology developed by academics, Canada ranks 31st out of 33 on carbon intensity, which measures CO2 emissions relative to the size of the economy. Given Canada’s cold climate, large natural resource sector, and long transportation distances, this result may not be surprising for many.
But most of the other OECD countries have milder climates and higher population densities, which result in lower daily energy needs. Clearly, the size of a country’s land mass drives some of its need for energy and subsequent greenhouse gas emissions. So what if other countries had to contend with typical Canadian distances? If one adjusts for land mass, Canada’s ranking would rise from 31st to 2nd place on the greenhouse gas intensity measure.
Finally, it’s important to note that on a number of measures in our study, almost all OECD countries do well. So even if Canada ranks lower on any particular measure, there’s often little difference between us and the top performers. For example, on reduced sulphur emission intensity, which assesses each country’s progress on lowering emissions per unit of economic activity over a decade, Canada ranks 17th with a score of 82—but 7th place Italy is not much higher, with a score of 92.
Overall, the evidence is clear. Canadians enjoy high levels of environmental quality relative to other high-income countries. And in areas where Canada’s ranking is low, it’s sometimes unavoidable due to our geography or climate, or because we compare ourselves against a peer group where everyone is doing well.
The reality is most wealthy developed countries have established sound environmental protection regimes, and Canada—despite what some critics claim—fares well when compared to the best performers in the world. That’s something all Canadians can celebrate this Earth Day.
Ross McKitrick, Elmira Aliakbari and Ashley Stedman are authors of Environmental Ranking for Canada and the OECD, published by the Fraser Institute.