It may be the cleanest and coolest air you’ll smell for a while.
Very recently the 2006 annual report on air quality, greenhouse gases, and water quality came out from Environment Canada. It is called Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators (no euphemisms here, hmmm?) ; A better name might be the Air and Water Pollution Levels Report.
Within this report a number of items stood out. The following comments do not reflect the overall intent of the document, and any inferences taken from this potentially non-representative sampling of the report are the responsibility of the reader. I would recommend a quick perusal of the 6 page highlights report; it is a good summary of the state of things, and is easy to read.
It is part of the Clean Air Act web page, which also shows some selectivity in its presentation. For example, it has a section about Pollution Issues, which doesn’t mention greenhouse gases or global climate change as issues; it focuses on air quality, acid rain, and pollutants with immediate and short-term impacts. When you click on the main link, it directs you to the Pollution Sources page instead, for some reason.
I’m going to start with greenhouse gases, with which I am most familiar. This report considers the six greenhouse gases addressed in the Kyoto Protocol, but do not address ozone (which has a relatively small effect) and water vapour. Water vapour is too complicated to address here, but it is the primary greenhouse gas, is the most variable, is highly chemically reactive, and the effect of other greenhouse gases on water vapour and its resultant feedback on climate is probably the major problem in predicting climate change today.
- The gases considered are carbon dioxide, methane (less common but extremely strong), nitrous oxide, and three groups of flourinated gases. These results are basically what is submitted to Kyoto annually as part of Canada’s commitment.
- Canadian-made greenhouse gases have effectively increased 27% over 15 years (1990-2004), with per capita emissions increasing by 10%.
- 91% of this change is due to transportation, the oil and gas industries, and fossil-fuel generated electricity. Alberta and Ontario led the pack in greenhouse gas production.
- Production and consumption of energy increased 30%, and accounted for 82% of the greenhouse gas emissions. Fossil fuel industrial emissions increased 49% over the period. Road transportation greenhouse gas production increased 36%, mostly due to purchases of larger vehicles. Emissions from thermal electricity and heat production increased by 37% due to greater energy demands.
It must be emphasised that extracting some fossil fuels requires generating greenhouse gases, even before the stuff extracted is burned. A good example is the Alberta Tar Sands, where they burn huge amounts of natural gas to extract the oil. Also, various agricultural practices produce significant amounts of greenhouse gases, including livestock and paddy rice farming, and methane emissions from vented landfills and vented septic tanks.
Methane is about 20 times more effective as a greenhouse gas per molecule than carbon dioxide. This difference actiually makes composting a desirable practice with respect to reducing greenhouse gases, rather than a problem. The decomposition does generate carbon dioxide, but it also inhibits methane production, giving a net benefit. Landfill decomposition is anaerobic and produces methane, so the more organic waste diverted from landfills to compost the better. While you can’t compost without generating greenhouse gases, it is a much better alternative than landfills.
Environment Canada focuses on ground-level ozone and particulates in the 2.5 micron range (PM2.5). They are both involved in smog production, and have deleterious effects on the lungs and bronchi in their own right. Basically ozone has increased by 0.9%/year over the period. This is almost exclusively in Southern Ontario, with other areas showing no clear trend. PM2.5 was greatest in Southern Ontario, and again there was no real trend from 2000-2004.
- For Southern Canada 22% of sampled water sources were marginal or poor, 34% were fair, and 44% were good or excellent.
- Northern Canada was much better, with 13% marginal or poor, 20% fair, and 67% good or excellent.
- The Great Lakes were good to excellent, except for fair for Eastern Lake Erie, and marginal for Western Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Of course Erie and Ontario are the most heavily populated and travelled lakes, and with the most industry along the shorelines.
For the freshwater statisitics, I would have liked a comparison with earlier data. But 44% of good or excellent water doesn’t seem like that much, especially since Canada is blessed with a huge amount of accessible fresh water. I also would have expected more good water in the north. On the other hand, I was fairly impressed by the Great Lakes.
What I get from this is that air quality is holding its own except in Southern Ontario, water quality doesn’t seem so great but we need more information, and greenhouse gases production rates don’t seem to be improving at all.
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