Protection Of The Environment – The Crucible Issue Of Our Time (March 2007)

Why does our national government act so incoherently on the environment?   Why do we not have a Minister of the Environment on a par with the Minister of Finance, so that ecological principles are integrated every step of the way into our budget, investment and planning processes? 

The future of the planet, peace and humanity depends on the ability of great religions, great cultures, and great nations to get along with one another, to respect one another, to have compassion.  To this end, Canada has a great deal to contribute.

But equally, the future of the planet depends on our ability to live sustainable lives, to lessen our footprint on the planet, and to do so as urgently as we might face a world war.  We must imagine life in 10, 15, 20 years – we do not have the luxury of declaring a century to be ours.

Yet, why, in 2007, does our national government act so incoherently on the environment?   Why, in 2007, do we not have a Minister of the Environment on a par with the Minister of Finance, so that ecological principles are integrated every step of the way into our budget, investment and planning processes?  In the recent past, we finally recognized the critical link between economic development and social justice, coining the phrase “social economy”.  Now we must refer always to the “sustainable social economy”.

Why, in 2007, is there no national ban on lawn and garden pesticides?  Why is it that a dangerous weed killer 2, 4-D is still available in Canada yet banned in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and elsewhere?

Why, in 2007, are we so slow in removing toxic chemicals from ordinary exposure?   Why did we not recently ban the sale of all products containing the dangerous contaminant – polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) – flame retardants that have been proven to interfere with thyroid hormones, and to play a role in the emergence of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders in children? Instead we only prohibited production of products with PBDEs in Canada, not the huge quantity of imported products. Why, to take just one of many possible examples, does the Canadian Environmental Protection Act allow sulphur dioxide concentrations up to 115 parts per million (ppm), while Australia mandates only 80 ppm?  We simply must take faster action to remove toxic chemicals in our environment, and stop tacitly accepting chemical pollution as the price of progress.

Why, in 2007, have we not yet imposed stronger fuel-efficiency standards on the auto manufacturers in North America, and ensured their commitment to hybrid vehicles on a par with Toyota and Honda?

Why, in 2007, are we not moving vigorously toward a national electricity grid, something that should have been built years ago?  This would, among other things, help accelerate the closure of Ontario’s dirty coal-fired plants and could generate 2800 new megawatts of power in Ontario by 2015.

Why, in 2007, have we been unable to fulfill straightforward international obligations such as to establish national parks in each of the country’s 39 natural regions pursuant to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity that we signed in 1992? (In 2002, at the South Africa World Summit on Sustainable Development, Prime Minister Chrétien promised 10 new national parks over 5 years.  As of 2007, only 3 had been completed and Québec refuses to countenance any land given up to the national parks in its 4 natural regions. (Québec has two national parks – in Shawinigan and the Gaspé).

One thing is very clear:  The problem is not constitutional as many proponents of a diminished national government claim.  The national government has all the powers it needs to act coherently in the national interest with respect to environmental matters.

The environment has both national and global dimensions that clearly require vigorous national environmental protection policies.  Too much pollution, too many toxic chemicals, too many greenhouse gases cross provincial and national boundaries.  We need to silence the defeatist Canadian voices moaning about how difficult it is to take effective action because environmental regulation is a hodgepodge of provincial, federal and municipal jurisdictions.  Canadians expect all those elected to public office to work together and not produce trivial acts of symbolic environmentalism and hypocrisy when it comes to the very survival of our planet.

The real cause of all our unfinished business and anemic federal leadership is one of political will.  Our federal politicians have lost the will to act firmly and forcefully in the national interest, and too often cave in to provincial intransigence.   Especially since the early days of the Mulroney Conservative government in the 1980s, any initiatives that might have ruffled provincial feathers were dropped.  So died any momentum towards, among other things, forceful legislation on the environment.

Yet of all the challenges facing us in the early 21st century, none is more in need of strong, continuing national action than environmental protection.

Reputable scientists around the world agree that we are now in a race between environmental destruction on a global scale, and sustainable solutions.  With the alarming evidence of rising global temperatures, the loss of polar ice, and the increase in carbon dioxide concentrations, now at 378 parts per million and rising exponentially (while for 650,000 years the CO2 concentration never went above 250-300 ppm), it should not be surprising that we slip into collective despondency about the future of the planet.  Philosopher Ronald Wright argues that “we are logging everywhere, building everywhere and no corner of the biosphere escapes our hemorrhage of waste… Our ‘system’ is a suicide machine, in no one’s interests.”   The evidence continues to pile up – coral reefs off Australia extinct by 2050; bogs of west Siberia melting, alone containing as much carbon as 73 years of man-made emissions; serious impacts on food production and water availability; and more extreme weather events.

But some modest optimism is justified.  For example, Jared Diamond, the author of the 2005 bestseller Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, argues that although we have only 50 years to turn things around, human wisdom can triumph over circumstance.

We all have children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren who need safe food, clean air and water, and who want to see living oceans and forests.  Yet Canadians have increased our greenhouse gas emissions by 30% since 1990, contrary to our Kyoto commitment of a 6% reduction between 1990 and 2012 levels.  Clearly we have much to do to bring down emissions, although particular attention will have to be placed on the oil production in the Alberta tar sands which will contribute nearly half of Canada’s growth in GHG from 2003 to 2010 unless steps are taken to counter this trend. (The primarily voluntary approach has its limits.  Under the Climate Change Voluntary Challenge and Registry Program (VCR), only a miniscule .04 megatonnes of greenhouse gases (compared to the reduction of 270 megatonnes of CO2 emissions required to meet our Kyoto obligations) were reported by Canadian industries).

The Project Green approach of the most recent Liberal government was a good beginning with its emphasis on information programs, energy-efficient labels, the Green Building Council, advertising, audits, subsidies to wind generators, efficiency grants to homeowners and other incentives. But real progress on “bending the curve of emissions” urgently requires much more energy conscious building codes, fuel efficiency regulations for new cars and trucks, good urban planning and public transit, “green taxes” and tough near-term, regulated emission-reduction targets for industry, together with a cap-and-trade system.

In addition, well-targeted incentives should be available to persuade both individuals and businesses to proceed with possibly costly renovations and a wide range of efficiency improvements and renewable energy initiatives.   The federal government also needs to ensure that municipalities and regional governments are able to pursue initiatives such as a significant reduction in   the cost of public transit, and much more advanced recycling and waste reduction programs.

A modest carbon levy could also be visibly imposed on the end user of fuels and electricity in order to create a fund to reduce other taxes and/or support initiatives to reduce waste, increase efficiency and promote low emission technologies.  A similar carbon levy or offset on air travel is equally necessary as we now realize that aviation is by far a bigger carbon marker and more ruinous than even the properly-maligned SUV.

Practical straightforward targets must be established so that Canadians can easily measure our progress towards a carbon neutral society.  This applies to everything from retrofitting houses, new efficiency standards for light bulbs that will effectively ban wasteful incandescent bulbs (Canada could set new standards for light bulbs under the Canadian Energy Efficiency Act –  Australia has banned incandescent light bulbs effective 2010 and  California has done the same effective 2012, pursuant to the recent How Many Legislators Does It Take To Change a Light Bulb Act),cogeneration (which uses steam generated in a production process to produce new electricity), district heating networks (that convert household waste into fuel), research and development into renewable energy, the shift to biofuels like ethanol, urban planning, even reforestation and aforestation.  Canadians also need to have ongoing easy access to information about all the small but important steps that can be taken to address climate change such as installing new roofs with a light coloured material that will absorb much less heat, and paving roads with a lighter coloured material.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in California stands out for his leadership on the environmental front.   He has stared down the naysayers and insisted on an 80% reduction of emissions from 1990 levels, by 2050.  Solar panels are now a mandatory standard option on all new homes.  By 2010, 20% of California’s energy must be generated by renewables – a requirement imposed on all utilities.  Carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles must be cut by 30% by 2016 and new greenhouse gas emissions standards become effective with the 2009 model year.

New Californian regulations also establish the first low-carbon standard for transportation fuels.  The carbon content of gasoline, diesel, ethanol and other fuels must be reduced by 10% by 2020.  California also imposes an extraction fee on all oil pumped, essentially a tax on oil production, until 2017, to generate a fund of $4 billion for research and development into alternative fuels.  The aim is a 25% reduction in oil consumption in California by 2017.