What’s the matter with Canada?

Ah, those crazy Canadians, always banging on about the benefits of socialized medicine, ice hockey, and even - God help them - poutine. It’s true, of course, that our northern neighbors have plenty to be proud of; still, when it comes to the environment, even the most fervently patriotic Canuck will admit that the country has some pretty serious problems.

Back in the ‘90s, Canada was a model of environmental good behavior, playing a key role in the battle to protect the ozone layer, pushing for international measures to protect endangered species, and readily signing up for the Kyoto treaty. But it’s been downhill since then: A decade of apathetic Liberal leadership has been followed, since 2006, by a Conservative government that has proved abjectly unwilling to take action.

The result is that Canada is falling well short of its Kyoto goals; in 2005, one study found that Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions were 20 percent higher than they had been in 1990, and that on a range of environmental measures - from sewage handling to water consumption - the country ranked a miserable 28th out of 30 industrialized nations, beating only Belgium and the US.

The biggest problem, though, is in Alberta, where high energy prices have helped spark a boom in tar-sand processing. The sludgy sands contain up to 173 billion barrels of oil - but processing the gunk produces triple the greenhouse emissions of regular oil, and has created toxic-waste ponds visible from space. The industry has also been linked to acid rainfall in neighboring provinces and increased cancer and autoimmune-deficiency rates in local communities; worryingly, one study found that moose meat from the region contained 453 times the safe level of arsenic.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper once promised to make Canada a “green energy superpower." Sadly, he seems to have rethought his position since oil-sand processing became commercially viable; these days, his administration routinely fails to enforce existing environmental laws and regulations. Meanwhile his environmental minister, John Baird, this week dismissed out-of-hand calls for a national carbon tax, and moved to ban government scientists from speaking to journalists in an attempt to stem the flow of embarrassing stories about his agency’s failings.

But ignoring this problem isn’t an option: Alberta’s energy lobby says it will treble tar-sand production over the next decade. The way things are going, Canada’s problems are only going to get worse: Canadians need to hold their leaders accountable, and demand real solutions to their country’s burgeoning environmental crisis.

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