By Ross McKitrick
and Elmira Aliakbari
The Fraser Institute
Canadians care about the environment, especially the quality of the air we breathe. A 2016 survey by University of Montreal researchers found that 73 percent of Canadians polled want the government to increase efforts to improve air quality and public health. And many commentators continue to suggest air quality is poor and getting worse.
But, in fact, Canada’s air quality has substantially improved over the past few decades. Our recent Fraser Institute study explains this success story.
We used a massive archive of data from Environment Canada to examine the evolution of air quality since the 1970s, spotlighting emissions and ambient concentrations (basically the amount of pollutants in the air) of five major air pollutants – ground level ozone, fine particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. The study findings contradict common misperceptions of Canada’s environment.
For example, ambient levels of ground-level ozone, an air pollutant caused by emissions, decreased 27 percent from 1979 to 2015. In fact, in the late 1970s, more than 70 percent of air quality monitoring stations across Canada reported ozone concentrations above the air quality standard. But by 2015, this number had fallen to 16 percent.
Regarding fine particulate matter (smoke, fumes, etc.), the data on ambient concentrations only go back to 2000. But more good news – from 2000 to 2015, fine particulate matter consistently remained below the most stringent air quality standard.
Canada’s ambient levels of sulphur dioxide, a pollutant largely associated with the combustion of oil and coal, plummeted by 92 percent from 1974 to 2015. During the 1970s, more than 60 percent of monitoring stations recorded concentrations exceeding the annual air quality standard. But this number fell to only three percent in 2015. Emissions of sulphur oxides also dropped 66 percent from 1990 to 2014.
Likewise in the last four decades, Canada experienced substantial reductions in nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide – two pollutants largely associated with automobiles – with national levels decreasing by 74 percent and 90 percent, respectively, from 1974 to 2015. In the mid-1970s, 54 percent of stations in Canada recorded nitrogen dioxide levels exceeding air quality standards – there were zero such readings in 2015. For carbon monoxide, all stations since 1999 – with the exception of one in New Brunswick in 2011 – have recorded levels conforming to air quality standards.
All of these developments have occurred despite considerable growth in population, energy use, motor fuel consumption and the Canadian economy.
Our findings have important policy implications, particularly as the United States, our biggest trading partner, has begun relaxing air pollution and climate policies. This lifts a cost burden from American industry and puts Canada at a competitive disadvantage.
In reality, while Canadian policy-makers want to make our pollution standards ever-tighter, the numbers indicate we’re well within the target zone of air quality and should instead consider regulatory relief. Imposing tighter regulations and tougher emission policies will increase economic costs without generating appreciable environmental benefits.
Canada has effectively decoupled air pollution from energy use and economic growth over the past few decades. Contrary to common misperception, our air quality conforms to the strictest standards in the world.
Ross McKitrick is a senior fellow and Elmira Aliakbari is a senior economist at the Fraser Institute.