Thomas Mulcair, federal NDP leader and Leader of the Opposition, has recently been berating Canada's environmental performance as he travels in the United States: "In the U.S. people know how to read," he said. "They know that Canada is the only country that has withdrawn from Kyoto. They know that the Conservatives can't possibly meet their Copenhagen targets [on greenhouse gas emissions] precisely because of the oilsands. They have to stop playing people for fools."
In another presentation, Mr. Mulcair said: "I don't think we are applying the basic rules of sustainable development in Canada right now, we've been clear about that," he says when asked why he won't give a simple "yes" or "no" on whether he backs Keystone XL. The Conservative government "is not enforcing our own federal legislation, we're not protecting the groundwater, we're not protecting the eco-systems, we're not protecting first nations' health," he added. According to an article in the Globe an Mail, Mulcair "criticized Stephen Harper's Conservative government and said its willingness to gut Canadian law and flout international treaties must be reversed. Mr. Harper has created a Canada that is "unrecognizable to a lot of the countries we have worked with closely over the decades and it's no longer recognizable to ourselves."
Alas, Mr. Mulcair seems to have a rather poor grasp of the facts regarding the environment. First, Canada is not the only country to turn their back on the Kyoto Protocol as Russia and Japan have refused to commit to another round of emission reduction targets and the U.S. never ratified the protocol to begin with.
But more importantly, contrary to Mulcair's assertions, environmental quality in Canada has been improving for decades in almost every meaningful category.
As documented in the study Canadian Environmental indicators -- Air Quality, in most instances, Canadians currently experience significantly better air quality than at any other time since continuous monitoring of air quality began in the 1970s.
Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, for instance, have decreased sharply in the vast majority of locations in Canada over the past 30 years. The decrease is especially apparent in our major urban centers. Concentrations of carbon monoxide, a potent toxic emission, has decreased everywhere in Canada and since the mid-1990s there have been no exceedances of the strictest provincial air quality objective at any of the 156 monitoring locations across the country.
Most notably, concentrations of two of the air pollutants of greatest concern -- ground-level ozone and ultrafine particulate matter -- have generally decreased across Canada since 2000. Air quality in Canada has improved and is improving.
And it's not simply air quality that has improved. As previous reports have documented, water quality in Canada is generally quite good, and forests are not harvested beyond levels that are considered environmental protective.
More and more waste water is subject to high levels of treatment before being released to the environment, more solid waste is being diverted to recycling, soil quality has improved, and the size of protected areas has increased over recent decades. The current federal government, demonized by Mulcair as environmental laggards, has implemented Canada's first nation-wide regulations on treated and untreated wastewater, Canada's largest source of water pollution.
We would never suggest that Canada is free of environmental challenges -- it certainly isn't, Canada is a natural resource powerhouse that faces unique environmental challenges. And as the world of energy production is changing quickly with regard to things like shale gas and oil sands production, it is certainly prudent to be alert to the potential for environmental harms.
But an objective view of Canada's environmental trends hardly justify the kind of catastrophic environmental destruction that Mr. Mulcair would have the world believe Canada is enduring. And to so badly distort Canada's record, particularly while traveling abroad, is unseemly in the Leader of the Opposition, who, in theory at least, serves as the "government in waiting."
There is still progress to be made in protecting Canada's environment, but hysterical pronouncements of imminent environmental Armageddon do not contribute much to the process of deriving environmental policy that balances environmental protection with economic growth. Striking that balance based on sober facts and sound judgment should be the goal of Canada's government, both those currently in power, and those who would like to be.
This column was written with assistance from Joel Wood, Senior Research Economist in the Fraser Institute's Centre for Environmental Studies.