Canada's Earth Day assessment

To mark this year's Earth Day, we take a look at how green Canada's record is when it comes to water and energy consumption, air quality and greenhouse gas emissions.

A look at our record on energy consumption, pollution

A crowd gathers on Parliament Hill to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, 1990. The day is a good time to think about the resources we use and our impact on the environment. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

The world was first introduced to Earth Day on Apr. 22, 1970, when an estimated 20 million Americans attended rallies around the country and helped clean up their local communities.

More than 40 years on, the event has turned into something of a global phenomenon, a time to stop and think about the Earth and our impact on it.

In preparation for this year's Earth Day, CBC News has compiled some statistics on energy use, carbon dioxide emissions, water consumption and waste to assess Canada's impact on the environment.

Electricity consumption

Canada's record on electricity consumption is neutral, largely because our high per capita consumption is offset by our widespread use of non-greenhouse gas emitting hydro power.

Canada exploits the vast hydroelectric potential of our rivers to produce electricity in a way that doesn't release the harmful greenhouse gas emissions that other types of energy generation do. (Greg Locke/Reuters)

According to figures from the World Bank, the country used 530 billion kWh of electricity in 2007, making us the sixth-largest energy consumer on the planet.

Although countries like the U.S. and China were far ahead — using 3,892 billion kWh and 3,438 billion kWh respectively — they also have much larger populations.

Canada ranks fourth highest in terms of per capita consumption, coming in at a little less than 17,000 kWh for each person. This is due in large part to home heating demands and explains why Iceland, Denmark and Norway are ahead of us.

Canada earns some marks for generating its electricity from non-emitting sources, particularly by exploiting the country's vast hydroelectric potential. Only 18.1 per cent of our power comes from fossil fuels. By comparison, the U.S. gets half its power from emitting sources, and for China, it's around 80 per cent.

Air quality

Data from the Canadian Index of Well-being, compiled by a non-partisan group based out of the University of Waterloo, suggests Canada's record on air quality is also mixed.

Between 1985 and 2008, total emissions of so-called criteria air contaminants (or CACs) — five harmful chemicals produced from industrial processes and the burning of fossil fuels — were on a downward trend, according to the group's environment report, released on April 7.

Sulphur oxide, for instance, dropped from around 3.7 megatonnes per year to slightly more than 1.5 megatonnes.

On the other hand, the report found that nearly 20 per cent of children suffer from respiratory illnesses such as asthma, a fourfold increase over the last two decades. 

Greenhouse gas emissions

Canada earns poor grades for its greenhouse gas emissions, which are proportionally quite high and have grown 24 per cent between 1990 and 2008, according to figures released by the Pembina Institute.

Smoke billows from the Lakeview Generating Station near Toronto as smog obscures the skyline on Jan. 28, 2000. The 597 vehicles per 1,000 people Canadians drive have helped make smog a persistent problem in large urban centres like Toronto. ((Frank Gunn/Canadian Press))

This country produced a peak 557,340,000 metric tonnes of CO2 in 2007, according to UN figures, which accounts for 1.9 per cent of global emissions. This is a large number considering Canada accounts for slightly less than one half of one per cent of the world's population.

Although the government did report a decrease of 2.1 per cent in 2008 — largely a result of the economic slowdown and a shift away from coal — CO2 emissions are still higher than they were in 1990, the baseline year from which emission-reduction targets are calculated in the Kyoto protocol.

The Canadian Index on Well-being report says the country is far from achieving its Kyoto goal of reducing emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels.

Moreover, the report says Canada's Arctic has warmed by as much as 1.7 C over the last century.


Canada also scores poorly when it comes to water consumption.

Though the country is blessed with a large quantity of fresh water, most of it is far from major population centres. More than 80 per cent of Canadians live in a narrow southern band while nearly two-thirds of our water flows to the Arctic Circle, according to Environment Canada.

Over the last 30 years, the supply of water in southern Canada has decreased by 8.5 per cent, according to data from the Canadian Index on Well-being. That represents a loss of 3.5 cubic kilometres every year, equal to Canada's total annual residential water use.

We are heavy consumers in this area, too. In 2004, the average Canadian used 343 litres of water every day, second only behind the U.S., where residents used a whopping 382 litres a day, according to Environment Canada.

Canada's per capita water consumption was more than double that of France and generally much higher than that of many European countries, such as Italy, for example, where the average resident uses 250 litres a day.


Canadians produce 8.5 million tonnes of garbage every year, although we've managed to reduce per capita municipal waste by 37 per cent since 1992. ((Patrick Dell/Canadian Press))

Canada's green profile isn't all bad: the country has managed to reduce the amount of garbage it produces in recent years.

Between 2006 and 2008, the total weight of annual residential waste dropped by 35,000 tonnes to a little more than 8.5 million tonnes, according to Statistics Canada.

Moreover, Canada has reduced the amount of per capita municipal waste by 37 per cent since 1992, according to a report released by the David Suzuki Foundation in June 2010.

The country has also increased the amount of residential garbage that gets recycled, from 18.1 per cent in 1992 to 26.8 per cent in 2006, according to the same report.


With a total surface area of just under 10 million square kilometres and a population of 33 million, Canada has an abundance of forests, wetlands and tundras. Much of this is relatively untouched given our population density, which is among the lowest in the world.

The country contains more than a third of the world's boreal forests and one-fifth of all temperate rainforests, according to the group Global Forest Watch.

And with 130,000 square kilometres of wetlands, Canada has the largest amount of this crucial ecological resource among OECD members.

However, in 2007 only 6.7 per cent of land in Canada was protected, according to the OECD Environment Compendium. That's about half the average for OECD countries.

For example, more than 28 per cent of land in Poland is protected from development while in Germany the proportion is more than half.

Vehicles per capita

According to World Bank statistics for 2007, Canada has 597 vehicles for every 1,000 people.

Though this number puts us below Netherlands Antilles, which is in the No. 1 spot in terms of most cars per capita, with a whopping 1,214 per 1,000 people, and the United States (820), it's still big enough to be a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.

According to figures released by Environment Canada, the transportation sector accounts for 22 per cent of all GHG emissions.

With files from The Canadian Press