The Fraser Institute has found a strong disconnect between Canadian student perceptions of environmental trends (mostly negative) and the reality of environmental trends (mostly positive): 65 percent of the students attending Fraser Institute seminars believe that air quality is deteriorating. 58 percent of students are convinced that annual forest harvests exceed regrowth. 73 percent of students believe we need to expand recycling programs and further control waste to avoid a “trash crisis.”
When asked about the source of their information on environmental issues, 72 percent report getting most of their information from the media. Given the passing of the 34th annual Earth Day, CANSTATS believed it was important to survey the accuracy of environmental coverage on that day.
What the Media said:
Earth Day coverage continues to portray a deteriorating state of the environment. The Toronto Star reported a gloomy picture of the environment, claiming that “humanity faces an ecological crisis of cosmic proportions.” The Times-Colonist took an equally depressing take on British Columbia’s recent trends, claiming that the current government is only making our bad environment worse.
News coverage was not uniformly negative. Several outlets accurately portrayed our achievements since the first Earth Day. The Vancouver Sun reported not only on the cumulative impacts of many small acts such as removing trash from streams, but the larger scale improvements in air quality. The Calgary Herald noted that “any objective study of North America would find much to celebrate.”
What CANSTATS says:
A survey of key indicators of environmental quality in Canada shows that the vast majority — 84 percent — have improved relative to the 1970s, according to the Fraser Institute’s annual study Environmental Indicators (Sixth Edition).
The study looks at key environmental indicators, including air and water quality, in Canada, the United States, and Mexico, and shatters the common misconception that environmental quality is deteriorating.
“While we do still have some environmental challenges to face, such as ozone pollution, coastal water pollution, and fishery protection, we have made spectacular strides in protecting our environment over the last three decades. Canadians should be celebrating, not living their lives in fear of environmental apocalypse,” says Dr. Kenneth Green, director of the Fraser Institute’s Centre for Studies in Risk, Regulation, and Environment.
One of the greatest success stories in environmental improvement is the increasing quality of the air Canadians breathe:
- Ambient levels of sulphur dioxide, a pollutant produced by burning coal and oil which can cause breathing problems and aggravation of respiratory disease, decreased over 73 percent between 1974 and 2001. Many cities experienced similar reductions including Toronto (–69 percent), Montreal (–79 percent), and Vancouver (–73 percent). Every city in Canada now meets the strictest annual health standard for sulphur dioxide.
- Ambient levels of particulate matter decreased 54 percent between 1974 and 2001.
- Carbon monoxide levels decreased by 83 percent from 1974 to 2001 despite the fact that there has been a 30 percent increase in total vehicle registrations over the same period.
- Ambient lead levels fell 94 percent in Canada from 1974 and 1998, a concentration so low that it is now measured only in a few areas adjacent to potentially concentrated sources of lead emissions.
Though the quality of the nation’s surface water is more difficult to assess, Canada’s water quality has also improved:
- Levels of DDE (a breakdown product of DDT) decreased 86 percent in Lake Ontario; 89 percent in Lake Erie; 85 percent in Lake Michigan; 91 percent in Lake Superior, and 93 percent in Lake Huron from 1974 to 2002.
- PCB levels showed similar trends, decreasing 89 percent in Lake Ontario; 82 percent in Lake Erie; 80 percent in Lake Michigan; 87 percent in Lake Superior, and 92 percent in Lake Huron relative to their levels in the mid 1970s.
- The percentage of the municipal population with wastewater treatment increased to 97 percent in 1999 from 72 percent in 1983.
The study also notes these contributors to Canada’s overall environmental quality:
- The amount of land set aside for parks, wilderness, and wildlife has increased in Canada by 163 percent since 1970.
- Waste disposed per capita has declined in all provinces except Quebec and Alberta between 1994 and 2000. Nova Scotia’s decline was the sharpest, at 40 percent.
- Forest harvests have remained below the Allowable Annual Cut (AAC) between 1970 and 1999.
“There is much cause for optimism about the state of Canada’s environment,” says Green. “Environmental trends across the board are improving, and should continue to improve in coming years. While environmental alarmists publish a steady stream of scary reports based on dubious science, all it takes is a quick look at the data to show that the reality of environmental progress is overwhelmingly positive.”
Resources spent to remedy one environmental problem are not available to address other, potentially more serious, problems. Given this reality, the most effective way to continue to achieve environmental improvement is to focus on the most serious remaining problems.
Canadians demand a clean environment, and will continue to do so. In order for individuals and policy makers to make informed decisions, they require an accurate picture of the environment. As the main conduit of public information on the state of the environment, the media has a duty to portray that picture based on sound scientific observations. The media should turn to the science and look at the actual trends rather than allowing simple conjecture to guide their reporting.
Jeremy Brown is a Policy Analyst in the Centre for Studies in Risk, Regulation, and Environment at The Fraser Institute, and manages the Canadian Statistical Assessment Service.
Calgary Herald, “Earth pilgrims’ progress: Going green makes most sense when people are put first”, April 22, 2004. pg. A18