Environment Report of Canadian Index of Wellbeing–Reminder that we need national energy and environment strategies


On April 7, 2011 the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) released its first Report on the Environment, bringing together statistics on the wellbeing of Canada’s air, water, and natural resources.  They concluded that, as Canadians, we need to do more to protect our natural home–we need a national energy plan and an environmental conservation strategy.

If you’re anything like me, you’re concerned about climate change and the general health of our natural environment; you have an understanding of causes and effects—that everything is interconnected, and that human activities affect water, soil, air, forests and climatic conditions.  Some impacts are fairly obvious and others are more subtle.  Thousands of scientists and citizen researchers keep us informed by studying trends, such as:

  • Receding glaciers,
  • Rising temperatures,
  • Disappearing animal species, and
  • High smog indexes.

However, in national leadership debates we hear very little real discussion about the future of our resources, air, water, and land—there may be passing references, but no substantive talk about how we are doing. Many citizens are concerned and making changes at home and at work, but what about the bigger picture?   The Canadian Index of Wellbeing Environment Report attempts to provide a snapshot using available environmental data.


Publicly launched in 2009, the CIW network recently made its home at the University of Waterloo, Ontario.  It is an independent, non-partisan think-tank aiming to produce a numeric indicator of national wellbeing by the fall of 2011.  Participants include researchers, organizations, and individuals.   The Chair of the advisory board is Roy Romanow, former Premier of Saskatchewan, and the Director is Bryan Smale, professor of recreation and leisure studies at the University of Waterloo.

While a traditional economic progress indicator, such as GDP, measures production, an index of wellbeing measures social and environmental factors.  The wellbeing approach challenges the assumption that  economic indicators, such as GDP or TSX, can truly reveal a nation’s quality of life, progress, and future potential.

The Wellbeing Index uses 64 indicators under the following 8 categories:

  1. Environment—measures resource use,   resource stocks, damage control efforts, and sustainability practices–the preliminary report is summarized below.
  2. Community Vitality—measures inclusiveness and participation of residents in private and public sectors.
  3. Democratic Engagement—measures involvement of citizens in government and Canadian global participation.
  4. Education—measures literacy and skill levels.
  5. Population Health—measures life expectancy; physical, mental, spiritual and social indicators of health; health care quality and access.
  6. Leisure and Culture—measures recreational and cultural activity.
  7. Living Standards—measures levels and distribution of  income and wealth; poverty rates; and sustainability.
  8. Time Use—measures how people experience and manage time during different life stages.


Sustainability and quality of life are not new ideas, but part of current policy in many quarters.  For example, Kingston, Ontario, has an Integrated Community Sustainability Plan—based on holistic notions of progress and endorsed by local government.   Plan partners agree to promote four pillars of Kingston’s sustainability:   cultural vitality, economic health, environmental responsibility, and social equity.  We need a similar type of plan at the national level.


The Canadian Index of Wellbeing environment report findings are mixed. One reason is that across Canada there are distinct differences in large cities and  other regions—these differences are concealed in national statistics.  Nevertheless, we  need to evaluate and dialogue at a national level, especially at federal election time.

Air quality has shown some improvements, but, in some areas, air quality is still negatively affecting respiratory health. Ground-level ozone exposure is increasing.  There has been some success in reducing industrial emissions of toxic air contaminants.

Greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) grew 24% since 1990 even though our Kyoto commitment was to reach 6% below 1990 levels by 2012—this is not news, but still a frightening statistic.  Per capita GHG emissions are increasing—only the United States emits more per capita. The breakdown of emissions shows that the highest contributors are fossil fuel industries, transportation, and electricity production.

The Canadian Arctic is warmer, according to the report, more than 1.7 degrees.  This is expected to continue.

Consumption of non-renewable energy sources–Consumption of non-renewable energy resources, such as crude oil, natural gas and nuclear energy, continues to be high.  We have a strong conflict of interest, as the energy sector accounts for 4% of GDP, with 90% attributable to fossil fuels.   Canadians are major producers, consumers, and exporters of fossil fuels.  Dollars that could be used to promote clean energy alternatives are being used to subsidize resources that will not last forever and that increase GHG emissions.

Water supplies are diminishing in some parts of the country—in southern Canada, by about 3.5 cubic km per year (equivalent to our annual residential water use).  Climate change is predicted to cause water supply fluctuations– from scarcity caused by drought to disastrous abundance in times of flooding.  Residential water use has declined somewhat, but we continue to be among the highest water users in the world.

Consumption of goods and waste production are high—there are some signs of reduced consumption and increased recycling, but these efforts need to increase as landfill sites continue to grow.

Reptiles, birds and fish–Native frog, toad, salamander, freshwater fish, grassland bird, shorebird, and seabird populations are endangered or declining. Predatory large fish, such as swordfish, are also at risk.

Depletion of forest ecosystems is exceeding growth–caused by harvesting and industrial development, as well as natural causes.

More environmental monitoring is needed to assess the status of our natural environment and resources.  Most of the data used in the report is 2 to 4 years old.  This may be one of the most profound conclusions of the study.   While economic indicators are available quarterly, indicators of health, quality of life, and natural environment are not available on a regular basis.  Trillions of GDP dollars may be a sign of wellbeing, but does not reveal activities that reduce quality of life, such as pollution, frantic lifestyles, and underfunded healthcare facilities.

When I started this blog, I thought it was about an environment report, but on reflection it may be more about the need for us to think more deeply and farther ahead.  In difficult times it is tempting to think purely in “economic” terms– in reality we are at a juncture in history when we should be asking a broader question: “What do we need to do to protect our quality of life and our environment?”.  National monitoring and strategic planning is the way to begin.

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