A new system to improve air quality across the country could mean fewer smog days in the future, though it's not just clear how many provinces will actually follow it.

The deal was announced Thursday by federal, provincial and territorial environment ministers meeting in Lake Louise, Alta.

They've agreed on Canada's first ever cross-country standards to reduce the harmful pollutants that cause smog and  which contribute to the death of 26,000 Canadians every year. 

Right now, Canada has a patchwork of rules for the limits on pollution produced by big industries and transportation that cause smog. But this new plan sets up one national standard. It will be up to the provinces to enforce the new regulations to make sure industries don't exceed those levels.

Alberta's Environment and Sustainable Resources Minister Diana McQueen says it's an agreement her province will follow.

"The [air quality management system] provides a truly nationwide approach to manage air quality," she told a press conference Thursday. "The system is a result of five years of work by governments  and stakeholders."

New limits for most harmful pollutants

Over the next few years the air quality management system will set acceptable levels for some of the most harmful pollutants, such as ozone caused by a toxins mixing with sunlight and tiny particles emitted from smokestacks.

It will also then set baseline industrial levels for  other toxic emissions such as sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide caused by burning fuel. These baseline levels will apply to 16 different sectors, including big industries like mining, chemicals and cement.

There will also be a section for air zone management so provinces can pinpoint specific problem areas of pollution.

Canada's Lung Association says it's certainly a good start.

"The new air quality management system will dramatically change air quality in Canada, and that will mean better health for all Canadians especially for vulnerable people," said spokesman Chris Wilson. "Older people with emphysema, children with asthma, these are the people who will generally benefit from better air quality."

Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent says cleaning up its own act on  air quality will help Canada negotiate with the U.S. to reduce cross-border air pollution.

"The health benefits could be truly significant," Kent told reporters.

Supported by industry, activists

The deal is getting support from an unusual coalition of health, environmental groups and industry associations who actually worked together for five years to craft the agreement.

"I think it's probably the first time I've supported anything the Harper government has done," said environmental lawyer Stephen Hazell. He represented several environmental groups that helped design the system.

That sentiment is echoed by the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada.

"We were all kind of waiting for this to break apart," said spokesman Gordon Lloyd. "It was like, 'How long can we work together?' and I think the environmental groups were thinking the same thing. But we hung in there."

However, there are still questions about how many of the provinces will have to follow the new air quality standards. The new agreement says provinces "may" enforce these standards, but the federal government can't make them.

Corrections

  • This story has been edited from an earlier version to correct the spelling of Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resources Minister Diana McQueen's name.
    Oct 12, 2012 4:44 PM ET