Good air quality is an important factor in quality of life as poor air quality can affect our health and well-being negatively. Improving air quality is also a critical factor in slowing down global warming.

In this article, we focus on the air quality statistics in Canada. We look at air pollution rates around the country, historical data on air quality, and what can be done to ensure Canadian air is as clean as possible.

Air Quality Statistics for Canadians

  • Air quality is measured on a scale of 0 to 500, with readings below 50 considered safe.
  • The UNEP real-time air quality calculator received data from 6,475 locations around the world.
  • Air pollution contributes to over 15,000 premature deaths per year in Canada.
  • Transportation and the oil and gas industry release the most pollutants into the air in Canada.
  • Between 2002 and 2016, the levels of air pollutants have decreased in Canada.
  • Ontario more than halved its pollutant emissions between 2000 and 2019.
  • Alberta produces the most nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and volatile compound matter in Canada.
  • Canada ranked 111 out of 131 when countries were ordered from most polluted to the cleanest.

Measuring Air Quality

Pollutants in the air come from both human-caused emissions and natural sources. Human-caused emissions include using fossil fuels in heating, cooking, and vehicles, while natural pollutants come from, for example, wildfires, volcanoes, and dust storms.

Pollutants that have health impacts on humans and the environment include PM2.5, PM10, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and ground-level ozone. The air quality is measured using the Air Quality Index (AQI), on a scale from 0 to 500. When the amount of pollutants in the air increases, the AQI reading gets higher.

When the AQI is lower than 50, the air is considered safe and anything above 100 is unhealthy. In 2021, only 38 out of 117 countries and regions had average healthy AQI readings according to IQAir, a partner of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Calculating Air Quality

Databanks for air quality process readings from various sources, including crowd-sources, governmental, and satellite-derived air quality monitors. Because these databases weigh data differently based on the type of pollution and reliability, you will sometimes find slightly differing air quality readings when you compare different sources.

UNEP was the first programme to develop a real-time air pollution exposure calculator, which was published in 2021. This calculator combines readings from validated air quality monitors from across the globe.

In total, readings are received from 6,475 locations across 117 countries, regions, and territories. The calculator prioritizes PM2.5 readings and calculates the air pollution level in nearly every country every hour.

Air Quality in Canada

The air quality in Canada has improved greatly over the last few decades and the air pollutant emissions are mainly continuing to decline. Canada is consistently ranked among the cleanest countries in the world in terms of air quality.

The level of air pollutants has been declining since 1990. However, almost a third of Canadians are still living in areas where the air quality does not meet the air quality standards.

How Air Pollution Affects Health

Air pollution has a significant impact on Canadians’ health. It is estimated that air pollution is linked to approximately 15,300 premature deaths in Canada, 2.7 million asthma symptom days, and 35 million acute respiratory symptom days in a year. The cost to the economy is around $120 billion per year.

However, according to the CCME, Canadians are already benefiting from the actions to improve Canada’s air quality. Between 2000 and 2011, the improved air quality was estimated to have prevented around 4,100 premature deaths, 2,200 hospital visits, and 770,000 asthma events.

In addition, there were 11 million fewer cases of Canadians experiencing breathing symptoms and 5.7 million fewer instances when someone’s activity was restricted by health problems that were made worse by air pollution.

Sources of Pollutant Emissions in Canada

Transportation and the oil and gas industry are the two main causes of air pollution in Canada. In 2019, transportation released 48.08% of nitrogen dioxide, 17.26% of volatile organic compounds, and 16.47% of fine particular matter emissions.

The second largest amount of nitrogen dioxides was released by the oil and gas industry at 29,75%, followed by the generation of electric power at 7.72%. The oil and gas industry was the largest producer of sulphur dioxides and volatile organic compounds, releasing 37.05% and 39.35% of these emissions respectively.

The other two industries that released large quantities of sulphur dioxides into the air were electric power generation at 29.4% and the ore and mineral industries at 24.79%. The paint and solvent industry was the second biggest producer of volatile organic compounds at 18.12%. Home firewood burning was the main source of fine particulate matter at 38.38%, followed by the ore and mineral industries at 16.87%.

The Levels of All Air Pollutants Have Decreased in Canada

The data from CCME shows that the levels of all air pollutants were lower in 2016 than in 2002. The annual average of nitrogen dioxide was 13.7 in 2002 and highest in 2003 when it reached 13.9. Since then, the level of nitrogen dioxide has been decreasing, and was 7.8 in 2016.

The rate of sulphur dioxide in the air has more than halved. It was 2.8 in 2002 and in 2016 it was 1.0. The amount of volatile organic compounds in the air has been reduced by just over half from 119.9 in 2003 to 58.4 in 2016.

The data on fine particulate matter in the air differs from the other trends in that it was not at its lowest in 2016. Instead, the level of fine particular matter in the air reached its lowest level in 2009 when it was 6.0, down from 7.3 in 2002. After 2009, the levels rose, reaching 7.5 in 2014 and 2015. However, they were back down to 6.4 in 2016.

Ontario Has Reduced Its Pollutant Emissions the Most

Since 2000, all provinces and territories in Canada have managed to reduce the levels of pollutant emissions. Ontario has done the best, reducing all four types of pollutants the most. Between 2000 and 2019, it reduced the level of nitrogen dioxides from 727 tonnes to 268 tonnes, sulphur dioxide from 587 tonnes to 122 tonnes, fine particulate matter from 105 to 50 tonnes, and volatile organic compounds from 762 tonnes to 341 tonnes.

Alberta Produces the Most Pollutant Emissions in Three Categories

Despite improvements, Alberta is still the biggest producer of pollutants in three out of the four categories. In 2019, Alberta released 683 tonnes of nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere. It was followed by Ontario with 268 tonnes, British Columbia with 204 tonnes, Quebec with 178 tonnes, and Saskatchewan with 149 tonnes.

Alberta was also the biggest producer of sulphur dioxide with 220 tonnes in 2019. Saskatchewan produced the second biggest amount of sulphur dioxide with 117 tonnes, followed by Ontario with 112 tonnes, Quebec with 91 tonnes, and British Columbia with 68 tonnes.

The biggest producer of fine particulate matter in 2019 was Quebec with 57 tonnes. The other provinces in the top five were Ontario with 50 tonnes, Alberta with 31 tonnes, British Columbia with 27 tonnes, and Saskatchewan with 12 tonnes.

Alberta was once again back in the number one spot for volatile organic matters. In 2019, it released 561 tonnes into the air. Ontario came next with 341 tonnes, then Saskatchewan with 250 tonnes, Quebec with 228 tonnes, and British Columbia with 139 tonnes.

The historical data shows that the level of pollutants relates to the size of the population and the types of industry in the province or territory. In 2019, Prince Edward Island, Nunavut, Yukon, and Northwest Territories combined released the least amount of pollutants. They released just 23 tonnes of nitrogen dioxide, 1.4 tonnes of sulphur oxide, 2.2 tonnes of fine particulate matter, and 10 tonnes of volatile organic compounds.

Canada’s Cleanest and Most Polluted Air

In 2022, the cleanest air in Canada was in Schefferville, Quebec. The average AQI for Schefferville was 9. The air quality was the worst in Clearwater, British Columbia, where the reading averaged 64, which is above the level considered safe.

The IQAir website lists the current level of air quality across several Canadian cities. The information is updated hourly. At the time of writing, the air quality was the worst in Kitchener, Ontario with an AQI of 234. In Yellowknife, Northwest Territories it was 164, and in Fort St. John, British Columbia 160.

However, there were also several cities where the level recorded was zero. Some of these included Carbonear in Newfoundland and Labrador, Cookshire-Eaton in Quebec, and Corner Brook also in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The government of Canada also publishes an air quality health index, which details the current situation and forecasts the quality of air for the next two days. It has air quality data for several cities across the country.

Canada Has Some of the Cleanest Air in the World

When ranked from worst to best air quality, Canada ranks 111 out of 131 countries. The average AQI for Canada in 2022 was 7.4. In the most polluted countries, Chad, Iran, and Pakistan, the readings were 89.7, 80.1, and 70.9, respectively in 2022.

In 2022, only six countries and seven territories consistently met the air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The guidelines state that the air pollution level should be 5 micrograms per cubic meter or below.

The six countries that consistently met the guidelines were New Zealand, Iceland, Grenada, Finland, Estonia, and Australia. The territories, in the Pacific and Caribbean, included Guam, Puerto Rico, Bermuda, and French Polynesia.

Actions for Better Air Quality

While Canada’s air quality is already much better than at the start of the millennium, there is still more to be done. For example, the Canadian government has set a target to replace fossil fuel vehicles with electric ones to reduce the impact of transportation on air quality.

In addition, industries are carefully regulated to control their emissions and the country is investing in research and innovation that seeks to develop new solutions for better air quality. Other initiatives include grants for homeowners to make their homes more energy efficient.

As well as the government taking action, the choices made by every Canadian also matter. There are various ways we can all contribute to better air quality in Canada. Some actions to take include:

  • Using greener ways to travel
  • Insulating our homes properly
  • Turning off the lights
  • Buying local foods
  • Opting for brands that support sustainability when shopping
  • Utilizing an indoor air purifier in Canada
  • Buying products that use less packaging

Conclusion

The air quality in Canada has been improving for the last few decades and Canada now has some of the cleanest air in the world. However, there are differences across the country and while some areas have excellent air quality, in other areas Canadians are still breathing unhealthy air.

Historic data shows the improvements made across the country, with Ontario leading the way. The province has more than halved its emissions in all four categories. In addition to government initiatives, every Canadian can do their part in reducing pollutant emissions by adopting greener habits.

Frequently Asked Questions

According to the UN Environment Programme partner IQAir, Canada’s air quality is among the best in the world. Ordered from the worst to best, Canada places 111th out of 131 countries.

The cleanest city in Canada in 2022 was Schefferville in Quebec. The city had an average air quality index of nine.

There are many things individuals can do to improve air quality. For example, you can opt for greener transport using public transport, walking, or cycling whenever possible. At home, insulating it properly will save energy. Your shopping habits can also make a difference. Buying local foods and products that use less packaging will help reduce pollution.

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