On October 11 in Lake Louise, Alberta, a game-changing deal was signed by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) to regulate air pollution. Although it received very little media attention, the Air Quality Management System (AQMS) is an impressive agreement that finally addresses the division of responsibility between the federal and provincial governments.

A CCME press release explains that the new management system will target key pollutants, set limits and establish regional airsheds. Pollution Probe, one of the stakeholders in the negotiations, says the AQMS is the result of five years of collaborative review with industry, health and environmental organizations, as well as the federal, provincial and territorial governments. An Ottawa-based environmental lawyer framed the agreement as, “This is the first comprehensive national environment scheme that I can recall,” in The Globe and Mail when the news broke.

The AQMS will reduce a number of specific air contaminants that cause smog and acid rain. Existing standards will be used to manage fine particulate matter and ozone, and work has begun on new standards for sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and volatile organic compounds. Each province will implement the AQMS in conjunction with their existing air pollution legislation, and each industrial sector will be bound by specific targets. There is also an enforcement mechanism: if provincial limits aren’t being met the federal government can step in to get results.

While this agreement deserves recognition, perhaps the AQMS framework could also be used to address another key group of air pollutants: greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. National GHG emissions will continue to increase without a national reduction strategy. Canada’s GHG emissions in 2010 were 692 megatonnes (MT) of CO2 equivalent – 17 per cent above the 1990 levels agreed to under the Kyoto Accord, but 6.5 per cent less than in 2005, the Copenhagen Accord benchmark year.

Despite ongoing improvements in energy efficiency and conservation, emissions will rise again as the economy recovers. The Harper government has promised new intensity-based limits for industrial sectors, yet there is no strategy for dividing federal-provincial powers and responsibilities. The provinces have been left to develop GHG mitigation policies on their own, with some establishing carbon taxes (BC, Alberta), and others cap-and-trade systems (Ontario, Quebec).

An AQMS-style framework could potentially be adapted to set limits on the key GHG pollutants, such as carbon dioxide and methane. Based on the lessons learned from the CCME collaborative process, perhaps it could even be initiated in time for Canada to meet its 2020 Copenhagen Accord reduction targets. A new system will be crucial as international pressure mounts and domestic emissions skyrocket – especially with the Alberta tar sands expected to triple output by 2035, which will seriously complicate efforts to limit GHG emissions. 

Budget cuts have decimated Environment Canada’s ability to measure ozone, tropospheric and atmospheric pollutants. Whereas Canada was previously a world leader in atmospheric science, five of the country’s six light-detection and ranging (LIDAR) observation stations have been closed, compromising research and drawing international criticism from NASA and others. While frameworks such as the AQMS are absolutely vital, we still need vigilant, scientific monitoring to effectively protect our environment.


The Current Events blog will feature content focusing on a wide array of environmental current events in Canada, from politics and public policy to energy, natural resources, and environmental science.

Dan is an environmental professional currently living in Toronto. Dan has previously published in Municipal World and Environmental Science and Engineering. He specializes in energy, transportation, and climate change policy, corporate sustainability, and environmental planning and assessments. He recently completed a Masters of Environmental Applied Science and Management at Ryerson University and has a Bachelors' degree in Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. 

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