Canadians, political parties should be talking about the environment: Romanow

Canadians need to counter some serious environmental threats to the country and planet or there will be consequences for their well-being, says the chair of the advisory board of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing.

TORONTO — Canadians need to counter some serious environmental threats to the country and planet or there will be consequences for their well-being, says the chair of the advisory board of the Canadian Index of Wellbeing.

A CIW environment report released Thursday says greenhouse gas emissions have risen 24 per cent since 1990, and nearly 20 per cent of kids — a fourfold increase over the past two decades —experience respiratory diseases like asthma.

While there has been an 8.4 per cent decline in average daily per capita residential water use since 1989, the report says Canadians use around 330 litres per person per day — more than twice as much as other industrialized countries, except for the United States. In Britain, the figure is just 106 litres of water per person per day.

The report’s grab-bag of statistics also says populations of desirable species such as swordfish, cod and shark are declining, and average maximum fish length has shrunk from 111 cm in 1950 to 46 cm in 2006.

On the plus side, it talks about healthy forest bird populations, good water quality and a decline in five “criteria air contaminants” with the exception of ammonia emissions, which have increased slightly.

In an interview, advisory board chair Roy Romanow said the report has been in the works for a long time, and its release wasn’t planned to coincide with an election campaign. Still, he would like to see more discussion of the environment.

“This is the time for the Canadian public, individuals and for political parties to be engaged seriously about this issue,” said Romanow, a former Saskatchewan premier and former head of a royal commission on health care.

He acknowledged he was premier of a province that had a lot of coal-fired energy production and high greenhouse gas emissions.

“We have not done enough as a society, as a Canadian society, to look at realistic alternatives in developing policies in motivating entrepreneurs, communities and individuals to change,” Romanow said.

“Taking a look at these numbers which I’ve seen, by people who have high credibility in the field, I’d like to think that if I was in politics today, I’d be raising this as a major, major issue.”

The author of the report, Alexis Morgan, an associate at the Pembina Institute, said it was challenging to pull together because a lot of environmental monitoring has been cut over the past 10 or 20 years.

“We don’t even know the most basic information about a lot of the plants and animals that even are here in the country, so those sorts of things that don’t necessarily have ’explicit economic value’ often don’t get monitored and tracked.”

He said it’s difficult to manage resources without measuring.

“If we’re not measuring the environment it’s an indirect way that we’re saying that we don’t really care about the environment,” he said from Washington.

“And if we don’t care about the environment that’s a signal that we don’t care about human health, we don’t care about recreation, we don’t care about our quality of life overall.”

In terms of water use, Morgan said that when “virtual water or embedded water” is taken into account, Canadian consumption is actually closer to 6,000 litres per person per day.

For instance, that would include water used in the manufacture of computers or other items that are purchased, and water needed to grow the cotton to make our clothes.

“While we can address things like low-flow toilets and so forth — and those are great initiatives — when we’re talking about a few hundred litres per day versus 6,000 litres a day, we have to really think about where our water impact is actually lying,” Morgan observed.

“And a lot of the time, it comes through the consumption.”

Water is not plentiful everywhere in Canada, Morgan said.

He recalled canoeing on the Grand River in southwestern Ontario a couple of years ago, and needing to carry the canoe in a section because the river ran dry.

“When water levels get that low — and the Grand River is the drinking water source for not only Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge, but all the way down through Brantford — that’s a concern, and we have to turn to other lakes and that has impacts on other communities.”

Morgan said that in many cases, good environmental policies exist in Canada to prevent overfishing or bilge oil dumping, for instance, but government agencies aren’t always provided with adequate tools and resources to enforce those policies.

In addition, he said various levels of government can make use of taxes, subsidies or eco-rebates to provide incentives to people to do the right thing.

“At the end of the day, I think any given group can really show leadership,” he said.

“This isn’t a lost battle and we do have the tools in our kit to actually make the change.

“But it’s going to require a bit of an attitude shift on behalf of Canadians to really think about this and really decide what they want.”

The CIW Network, based at the University of Waterloo, was formed several years ago to measure Canadians’ well-being in specific areas such as health, living standards, education, time use, leisure and culture.

“We want to put a measuring point at the opposite end of the teeter-totter to the GDP which just measures economic activity and how the economy booms or busts,” Romanow explained.