United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
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Chapter 2: Regional Perspectives

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North America

Major Environmental Concerns

[ Land | Forest | Biodiversity | Water | Marine and Coastal Environments | Atmosphere | Urban and Industrial Environments ]

The two countries considered in this section, Canada and the United States, rank among the wealthiest in the world, not only in per capita income but also in richness of natural resources. With its high standard of living, North America is the leading producer and consumer of goods and services-and of waste-on the planet. Both nations are concerned about global, regional, and national implications of today s resource use patterns, with the increasingly obvious negative feedback on the quality of life.

In both countries, major Government policy statements are made to bring environmental issues to public attention (Marchi, 1996; Christopher, 1996). Some of the priority environmental concerns in the region have also been expressed by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), set up in 1994 under the environmental side agreement of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which includes Mexico. The CEC concentrates on five areas: environmental conservation; protecting human health and the environment; environment, trade, and economy; enforcement co-operation and environmental law; and information and public outreach (CEC, 1996).

This section draws on official reports and statements of the Canadian and U.S. Governments as well as reports from Government agencies and the private, non-governmental sector, including public opinion surveys.

Together, Canada and the U.S. cover nearly 18.8 million square kilometres, some 14 per cent of the world s land area. The two countries contribute 49 per cent and 51 per cent to this total area respectively. With one of the longest common borders in the world, transboundary, multimedia environmental issues are also important. Environmental deterioration in the Great Lakes Basin and trans-boundary air pollution are two such areas of concern.


The major land-related problems in the region are erosion; soil contamination resulting from industrial and agricultural activities, including the overuse of fertilizer and pesticide use; and water contamination from agricultural practices.

Canada depends on the land for its economic well-being more than most other industrialized nations. One in three workers is employed directly or indirectly in agriculture, forestry, mining, energy generation, and other land-based activities (Government of Canada, 1996). In the United States, while dependence on primary production is lower, agricultural production and marketing account for 16 per cent of employment, and almost half of the total land area (excluding Alaska) is dedicated to agriculturally related purposes (PCSD, 1996).

U.S. agriculture is in transition. While total cropland has stayed nearly constant since 1945 at 186 million hectares, much of the best farmland is adjacent to major metropolitan areas and is being converted to non-agricultural uses (PCSD, 1996; USDA, 1996). The number of farms declined by almost 31 per cent, from 2.9 million in 1970 to 2 million in 1994, as the average size of farms increased by about 28 per cent in the same period (PCSD, 1996). New strategies are needed to address the changing situation.

Throughout North America, then, the management of farms and rangeland is a key part of sustainable development. Poor agricultural practices result in hazards to human health. Although the pesticide DDT has been banned in Canada and the United States, residues of DDT, such as DDE, are still found in the serum and fat tissues of the majority of North Americans due to its persistence in the environment and to continued inputs from other regions through long-range transport. High DDE levels in women have been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. The presence of other chlorinated compounds in human tissues has raised concerns about their possible harmful effects on endocrine and reproductive functions (Pohl and Chivian, 1996; Canadian Dept. of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 1996b).

Some measures are being taken to address key problems. For example, by 1992, U.S. farmers had reduced soil erosion on croplands by around one billion metric tons per year from 1982 levels (NSTC, 1996).Soil erosion savings have come about through the Conservation Reserve Program (635 million metric tons), conservation technical assistance (272 million metric tons), and conservation compliance (90 million metric tons) (PCSD, 1996).

To mitigate the use of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), Canada and the U.S. have developed and implemented pesticide management programmes nationally and regionally.


Forests are a dominant feature of the North American landscape, covering almost half of Canada (Natural Resources Canada, 1996) and a third of the United States (Brooks, 1993). They provide a great diversity of economic, ecological, recreational, cultural, and spiritual benefits. These two countries are the world s two leading exporters of forest products (Brooks, 1993). In Canada alone, more than 880,000 people rely on the forest industry for their livelihood (Canadian Dept. of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 1996b). Important steps-including both public and private action-have been taken to put the region on an effective course for achieving sustainable forestry management (PCSD, 1996; Natural Resources Canada, 1996).

Pressures for commercial logging are expected to intensify in the U.S. in the years to come. In Canada, commercial logging is not expected to increase, and annual harvests are currently running at almost a quarter below the annual allowable cut (Canadian Dept. of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 1996b). While deforestation and loss of forested area are not among the priority concerns, the depletion of old-growth forests and of the last remaining rainforests in British Columbia, Canada, and the Pacific Northwest in the United States are serious concerns of the public and often trigger discussions and legal measures for their conservation. Recently there has been a movement to stop logging of old-growth forests on public lands in order to promote biodiversity conservation.

Although most forests in the United States are managed for multiple use, private forests are often managed with a stronger emphasis on fibre production than is found in public forestlands. Private forests also produce higher wood yields at a lower cost per unit than public timberlands. Because of these factors, private forest areas figure significantly in market-based approaches to promoting natural resources stewardship (PCSD, 1996). There are nearly 8 million private landowners engaged in non-industrial forestry in the United States. Together they planted 41 per cent of the trees planted in 1993 and care for 59 per cent of U.S. timberland (Comanor, 1994).

In Canada, although more than 425,000 landowners are engaged in private forestry, only 6 per cent of the nation s forests are growing on private property. Provincial governments are responsible for managing 71 per cent of Canadian forests; the remaining 23 per cent are managed by Federal and Territorial governments (Natural Resources Canada, 1996).


Canada s wildlife heritage is estimated to encompass 138,000 species, including 4,000 vascular plants, 1,800 vertebrates, and more than 44,000 invertebrates (Environment Canada, 1996b). As of 1996, 254 species, subspecies, or populations in Canada were considered endangered, threatened, or vulnerable; another 21 species were already nationally or globally extinct (Government of Canada, 1996b). (See Figure 2.20.) Pressures on native wildlife are also reflected in the presence of toxic contaminants in tissues of living organisms and in the ongoing invasions of non-native species, such as the purple loosestrife and the zebra mussel. Encouraging signs include an increase in populations of ducks and some species of geese; progress in efforts to restore endangered species such as the peregrine falcon, swift fox, and whooping crane; and declining levels of toxins in tissues of living organisms (Government of Canada, 1996).

There are about 2,800 protected areas in Canada, excluding private lands and cultural heritage sites. Nearly two thirds of their total area is strictly protected, but most sites are smaller than 10 square kilometres. Of the 217 terrestrial eco-regions in Canada, 71 have no protected sites (Government of Canada, 1996). Preliminary modelling has suggested that 7 per cent of Canada is at high risk of biodiversity loss, and only 25 per cent is at low risk (Environment Canada, 1996a). In an effort to protect biodiversity, Canada continues to add to its networks of parks and other protected areas, as well as to legislation (Government of Canada, 1996).

The United States has also made strides in the protection of its natural resources. By 1994, for example, 5.7 million hectares across the country were protected through land trusts. Private and voluntary efforts have resulted in a 49-percent increase in the area under conservation since 1990. While public lands play an important role in this respect, private lands are also critical because they account for 64 per cent of the continental United States. Moreover, of the 728 species listed as endangered or threatened (under the Endangered Species Act), about half are found on a combination of public and private lands. To date, existing laws and regulations have not been entirely adequate to safeguard the nation s biological diversity (PCSD, 1996).


Water is one of the most common concerns of Americans and Canadians. Despite an overall relative abundance, water shortages occur periodically in some localities, such as the more arid sections of the western United States, the Canadian prairie, and some of the valleys in the interior of British Columbia.

Canadians and Americans are among the world s largest per capita consumers of water (See Table 2.10.) especially where prices are relatively low. For example, Canadian households use twice as much water as European households, but they pay half as much for it. (See Table 2.11.) In 1994, Canadian households that paid volume-based water rates used 258 litres per person per day, nearly 40 per cent less than those charged a flat rate (Environment Canada, 1996d).

Eleven per cent of all surface and ground water withdrawn in Canada is used for municipal purposes. While one in four Canadians relies on ground water for domestic supply and the remainder depend on surface water, both sources are coming increasingly under threat in terms of quantity and quality (Environment Canada, 1996d). Because of increasing demand, municipal water supply is becoming one of the most critical water issues in the region (Environment Canada, 1996d; EOP, 1993). For example, in 1991, one in five Canadian municipalities reported problems with water availability (Environment Canada, 1996d). Linked to this is a growing concern for how to prevent resource depletion and reduce the environmental burden caused by the use of water for both industrial and community needs.

Compared with most other countries, Canada and the United States enjoy relatively good water quality. Nevertheless, basic delivery problems remain in some rural areas. Improper agricultural production practices have in some areas contributed significantly to impaired water quality of rivers, lakes, and estuaries (PCSD, 1996). In Canada, recent surveys suggest that 20 to 40 per cent of rural wells may be affected by faecal coliform bacteria (Government of Canada, 1996). A U.S. Department of Agriculture study in 1995 concluded that 2.4 million rural Americans, including a million without piped water, had a critical need for safe, dependable drinking water; supplies to a further 5.6 million did not meet Safe Drinking Water requirements (EPA, 1996a). The cost of meeting "highest priority" safe drinking water needs in rural America was estimated at US$3.5 billion.

One in five U.S. citizens receives water from a facility that violates a national safety standard. Surface water treatment standards were not met in 9 per cent of the systems while total coliform bacteria levels exceeded permitted levels in 8 per cent of the systems. Lead and copper treatment violations occurred in 1 per cent, as did chemical or radiological contamination violations. Through aggressive action under the Surface Water Treatment Rule by responsible authorities, the risk of human exposure to microbiological contaminants is being reduced. In 1993, 1,000 water systems serving 12 million residents were not in compliance; by 1995, the number of non-compliant systems had been reduced to 400, serving 9.9 million (EPA, 1996a). Since 1972, the United States has invested a total of US$350 billion to control water pollution (NSTC, 1996).

Most Canadians get their drinking water from municipal water supplies, which generally meet high provincial and territorial safety standards. However, a 1995 report entitled "Community Drinking Water and Sewage Treatment in First Nation Communities" indicates that in those Aboriginal communities, about 20 per cent of the water systems require action to eliminate the risk of potential health problems while 9 per cent of the sewage systems have problems that could put human health at risk (Canadian Dept. of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 1996).

The largest system of fresh surface water on earth, containing approximately 18 per cent of the world supply, is situated on the Canada-U.S. border. The Great Lakes-Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario-together with the St. Lawrence River system, are a vital part of the physical and cultural heritage of North America. Spanning more than 1,200 kilometres from east to west, these inland fresh-water seas provide water for consumption, transportation, power, and recreation. The basin ecosystem is home to more than one tenth of the population of the U.S. and one quarter of the population of Canada. Some of the world s largest concentrations of industrial capacity are located in the Great Lakes region. Nearly 25 per cent of the total Canadian agricultural production and 7 per cent of the American production are located in the basin (Environment Canada and U.S.-EPA, 1995).

Beginning in the 1950s, concerns arose about the increasing eutrophication of the lakes, loss of wetlands and other habitats, the impact of exotic species on native fish stocks and aquatic ecosystems, and environmental contamination by persistent toxic chemicals. Concerted, system-wide efforts by both governments over the intervening years have done a great deal to restore environmental quality. Nutrient stresses are no longer the widespread problem that they were in the 1970s. There has been a general decline in the concentrations of persistent organic substances in all media throughout the Great Lakes. The aquatic community in Lake Superior is in good health again.

Despite these and other improvements, the latest State of the Great Lakes report, issued by the governments of Canada and the U.S. (Environment Canada and U.S.-EPA, 1995), concludes that the health of the Great Lakes Basin ecosystem is still variable. For instance, many toxic contaminant loadings remain above acceptable levels in water, aquatic organisms, and fish-eating birds. Aquatic habitats and wetlands are considered to be in a generally poor state due to huge losses acquired over the years in both quality and quantity.The ecosystem balance and reproductive impairment of native species in Lakes Michigan, Ontario, and eastern Erie are still worrying. Joint efforts are continuing to address, in an integrated manner, the Great Lakes environment. (See Chapter 3.)

Marine and Coastal Environments

By the year 2000, more than three quarters of the U.S. population is expected to reside in coastal communities, with concomitant effects on land use (PCSD, 1996). The figure is much lower in Canada, about 25 per cent. Canada has the longest coastline in the world, fronting on three oceans (Government of Canada, 1996). Not surprisingly, the sustainable use of marine ecosystems is thus crucial to the future of both nations. (See Figure 2.21.)

The populations of some estuarine, inshore, and offshore fisheries have been reduced to drastically low levels in North America by overfishing, loss of habitat, and land-based pollution. From 1980 to 1989, reports from more than 3,650 events with disastrous impacts on fish populations cited the loss of 407 million fish in coastal and near-coastal locations in the United States (EOP, 1993; EPA, 1996a). In eastern Canada, acid rain is responsible for habitat degradation and the loss of fish in thousands of lakes and rivers, including a number of former salmon streams (EPA, 1996a). Pollution has also caused the disappearance of some formerly fished species and the decline of some others in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River system (EPA, 1996a).

Approximately 1,000 species of fish live in Canadian waters; fewer than 200 live in fresh water, the others live in salt water along the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific coasts. Four stocks or species are thought to be extinct, two are no longer found in Canadian waters, and 49 are listed as endangered, threatened, or vulnerable. Declining fish stocks have resulted in the collapse of the East Coast fisheries, with a devastating impact in eastern Canada (Environment Canada, 1996c).


Concentrations of some atmospheric pollutants have been noticeably reduced in North America. Over the period 1970 to 1993, among the six pollutants used to monitor National Ambient Air Quality in the U.S., lead showed the most dramatic improvement, with virtual outdoor elimination since the 1970s following the changeover to unleaded fuel (Government of the United States of America, 1995). Emissions of four of the other five critical pollutants also declined: carbon monoxide (by 24 per cent), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (by 24 per cent), fine particulate matter (PM-10) (by 78 per cent), and sulphur dioxide (by 30 per cent). Only nitrogen oxide registered an increase (of 14 per cent) (Government of the United States of America, 1995). Although nitrogen oxide emissions from vehicles have declined during the last 10 years, these gains have been offset to a large extent by increased fuel combustion for electricity generation.

In Canada, industrial emissions of sulphur dioxide were cut by nearly half while emissions of total particulate matter from industrial plants declined by nearly 36 per cent between 1970 and 1985 (Environment Canada, 1996d). As in the United States, ambient concentrations of lead have dropped dramatically and, by the early 1990s, were only a small percentage of the concentrations present 20 years earlier (Environment Canada, n.d.).

Despite these improvements, air pollution is still a concern in both countries. Twenty years after the passage of the Clean Air Act in the United States, one in three Americans still lives in an area where the air is too polluted to meet Federal health standards (Browner, 1996). The major air quality issues in the United States have been identified as health risks from air pollutants in the ambient air, especially ozone and toxic chemicals; ecosystem damage from regional air pollution, including ozone and acid deposition; transboundary air pollution; and radon and other indoor air pollutants (US-UNCED, 1992).

Some central Canadian cities continue to experience unacceptable air quality, especially in summer. The most frequent causes are ground-level ozone and airborne particulates (Environment Canada, 1996d). Canadian and U.S. emissions of ozone-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides, the precursors of ground-level ozone, are still close to the levels of the mid-1980s (Government of Canada, 1996). Pulmonary disease from air pollution, especially from small particulates, has been estimated to cause 50,000-60,000 deaths each year in the United States and to cost the economy a total of US$40 billion to US$50 billion in direct health care expenditures and lost productivity (Pohl and Chivian, 1996). Some experts have suggested that 6 per cent of all respiratory admissions to hospitals in Canada are smog-related (Marchi, 1996).

In recent years, comparative risk studies performed by EPA have consistently ranked indoor air pollution among the five top environmental risks to public health in the U.S. Studies of human exposure to air pollution indicate that indoor air levels of many pollutants may be two to five times-and, on some occasions, more than 100 times-higher than outdoor levels (EPA, 1994). Over the past several decades, exposure to indoor air pollutants is believed to have increased due to a variety of factors, including the construction of more tightly sealed buildings, reduced ventilation rates to save energy, the use of synthetic building materials and furnishings, and the use of chemically formulated personal care products, pesticides, and household cleaners. EPA, in close cooperation with other Federal agencies and the private sector, has begun a concerted effort to better understand indoor air pollution and to reduce people s exposure to air pollutants in offices, homes, schools, and so on (EPA, 1996b).

Electricity generation accounts for about 70 per cent of annual sulphur dioxide emissions and 30 per cent of nitrogen oxide emissions in the United States (EPA, 1996d). The largest source of sulphur dioxide emissions in Canada is the smelting of metal ores, which accounts for 50 per cent of eastern Canadian emissions. Power generation contributes 20 per cent (Environment Canada, 1996d).

Airborne acidic pollutants are often transported by large-scale weather systems thousands of kilometres from their point of origin before being deposited. In eastern North America, weather systems generally travel from southwest to northeast. Thus, pollutants emitted from sources in the industrial heartland of the midwestern states and central Canada regularly fall on the more rural and comparatively pristine areas of northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada (Environment Canada, 1996).

Acidification of surface waters is a further cause for concern. Many lakes and streams in Canada and the United States suffer from chronic acidity because they rest atop soil with a limited capacity to neutralize acidic compounds (called "buffering capacity"). The U.S. National Surface Water Survey found that acid rain causes acidity in 75 per cent of acidic lakes and about half the acidic streams (EPA, 1996d). The Canadian Government has estimated that 14,000 lakes in eastern Canada are acidic (Government of Canada, 1996d). About 43 per cent of Canada s land, mainly in the east, is highly sensitive to acid rain (Environment Canada, 1996d). Acidification in Canada is, to a large extent, a transboundary problem because half the acid rain falling in Canada originates in the U.S. (Environment Canada, 1996). "Episodic" acidification is an added concern, particularly since it can cause large "fish kills." In the United States, for example, approximately 70 per cent of sensitive lakes in the Adirondacks of New York state and 30 per cent of streams in the mid-Appalachians of the eastern United States are likely to become acidic during such an episode (EPA, 1996d).

Recent extreme weather events, including heat waves and heavy flooding, have helped citizens to understand the possible impacts of climate change and how they could affect North America. The region produces more greenhouse gas emissions than any other region and has among the highest per capita emission levels (WRI/UNEP/UNDP/WB, 1996). Total U.S. emissions increased by 13 per cent between 1970 and 1990 (EOP, 1993) and currently comprise 22 per cent of the world total (WRI/ UNEP/UNDP/WB, 1996). Both Canada and the United States are pursuing ways to reduce their contributions as part of concerted efforts under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Urban and Industrial Environments

Health threats to children in urban and industrial environments are of particular concern in the region (NRC, 1993; Needleman and Landrigan, 1994; OTA, 1990; Schewiz and Harris, 1993; Canadian Dept. of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 1996a). Four million one- to six-year-olds in the United States-including two thirds of poor, minority, inner-city pre-school children-have levels of lead in their blood high enough to cause brain damage (Pohl and Chivian, 1996). The U.S. Public Health Service has concluded that toxic lead exposure costs the country tens of billions of dollars in health expenditure and productivity loss (Pohl and Chivian, 1996). This lead is primarily from indoor pollution (e.g., from paint) and from mother-to-child transfer during pregnancy. (Lead remains in the body, in bones, for example, for a long period of time.)

The remedies adopted to upgrade environmental quality during the past two decades have not always benefited all communities or all populations within a community equally. Many minority, low-income, and Native American communities have raised concerns that they suffer a disproportionate burden of health consequences due to the proximity to industrial plants and waste dumps, and from exposures to pesticides or other toxic chemicals at home and on the job. They argue that environmental programmes do not adequately address these disproportionate exposures or the underlying "environmental justice" issues (Greenwire, 1996).

Reducing overall chemical loads on North America s environment is one of the region s major concerns. The dramatic growth in the number and variety of chemical products since the Second World War has led to an increasing concern for the health of both wildlife and humans. More than 35,000 chemicals are reported to be in use in Canada today (Environment Canada, 1996d). Just how many of these are toxic is unclear. Today, one in four U.S. citizens lives within four miles of a toxic waste dumpsite (EPA, 1996c). Restoration and remediation of hundreds of thousands of contaminated ground sites will cost the United States an estimated US$100 billion to US$1 trillion over the next 30 years (NSTC, 1996). In 1991, Canadians produced an estimated 5.9 million tons of industrial hazardous wastes, most of which came from industrial sources. It is estimated that as many as 1,000 sites in Canada are contaminated by hazardous wastes (Government of Canada, 1991).

The United States is the largest producer of wastes in the world (PCSD, 1996). Per capita generation of solid waste has increased 65 per cent over the last 25 years (NSTC, 1996). Some 195 million tons of municipal waste were generated annually in 1992 and 1993; by the year 2000, total municipal waste generation is projected to reach 222 million tons per year (Government of the United States of America, 1995). Throughout North America, urban centres are having increasing problems finding sites for new sanitary landfills. Campaigns to save resources and encourage recycling or waste separation by local, regional, and national public institutions have already led to the implementation of stricter rules in certain communities. Canada is committed to a 50-per-cent waste-reduction target established by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (Canadian Dept. of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 1996b).

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