Canadian Election Proposal # 4: Canada Needs a Healthy Environment

This article is reprinted with permission of the Pearson Centre for Progressive Policy (thepearsoncentre.ca). It is a Canadian think tank which solicits proposals for progressive initiatives to put forward during the 2015 Canadian federal election campaign. Politudes is a non-partisan organization and does not endorse any party or platform, but publishes material of interest to our readers.

By Nikita Lopoukhine

Our natural environment sustains economies, societies and the well-being of individuals. All that Canada’s environment gives to us must not be overlooked as we forge the future of Canada.

By investing in Canada`s environment we will assure the well-being of future Canadian generations. We must recognize the dire consequences facing us because of climate change, pollution and the endangerment of plants and animals. Protecting our health, food security, consumer choice and business opportunities of future generations of, if not today`s, Canadians must not disregard these realities.


To address these realities, a three part progressive policy is proposed. The focus begins with the promotion of a low carbon economy, then investing in conservation and restoration and finally to encourage citizen involvement. These policies depend on a commitment to science and research. A renewed commitment to federal science is desperately needed, through budgetary announcements, overt statements of support and by adopting policies of openness and transparency. Establishing a parliamentary Office of Science and Technology would be an important step forward.


Promoting a low carbon economy:


Climate change is already upon us and as more carbon is emitted the future looks bleak. International negotiations are trying to limit the global temperature rise to 2°C above the average temperature since the industrial revolution. Because recent debates over climate change have focused on the extent of change, greater issues have been ignored. Issue such as erratic weather patterns, ocean acidification, prolonged droughts, frequency and intensity of forest fires, the spread of pests and invasive species to the detriment of native species (one in six threatened with extinction) and the rise of sea levels should be our focus or preoccupation.


While Canada`s overall contribution to carbon emissions is relatively low, as a developed nation we must be aware of our global effect. Our significant per capita emissions are affecting the developing and poor countries which are for the most part do not have the infrastructure or wealth to withstand the projected effects. Without preparation or capacity to absorb change the effects are disproportionally felt by poorer countries. Some 262 million people were affected by climate disasters annually from 2000 to 2004, over 98% of them were in the developing world. In richer countries, members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), one in 1,500 people were affected by climate disaster over this period. The comparable figure for developing countries was one in 19 Global projections for refugees resulting from climate change are around 50M.


Canadians and even some oil company CEOs are in agreement that a first step to curbing emissions requires the initiation of a carbon tariff. The debate rages over whether it should be a “cap and trade “program or a straight forward carbon levy or tax. Other schemes at carbon levies include a “Fee and Dividend” which in effect is assuring that the revenue for the applied fee is shared among citizens and an “Emissions Intensity” approach. The latter is an Alberta scheme where tradeable credits are earned for meeting set standards. “Cap and trade” is dependent on a viable carbon market and with Quebec and Ontario joining with California a viable carbon market can be expected to make this system work. A carbon as applied by BC is lauded as an effective means for reducing carbon emmissons.


A national carbon tax is administratively less cumbersome and provides clarity over cap and trade programs and other schemes. To implement it requires convening Provinces, Territories, and Aboriginal Governments immediately to agree on the parameters of applying, collecting and allocating the revenues of such a levy. One consideration for the revenue is to recognize landowners protecting forests and wetlands and thereby sequester carbon.  The immediacy of the problem demands decisive additional steps besides levying a carbon tax. Accordingly, fossil fuel subsidies to industries must be curtailed and the industry must be brought under a regulatory regime that addresses not only production but also the transportation of fossil fuels. The long term intent of such a regulatory framework would focus on moving away from a carbon dependent economy. Federal authority over transportation, fishery, navigable waters and migratory species provides for federal authority and subnational government accords.

Federal expenditures, procurement and transfers must be evaluated against climate change criteria. Simply put, the first question to ask is whether expenditure will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. An economic value question should not be precluded, but it must be a subsidiary to the question of emissions. Meeting urban Infrastructure needs should focus on reducing climate change emissions, for example, by investing in electric based mass transit with and between urban centres, retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency and promoting better designs through educational institutions. Equally important, would be to focus on changing consumer practices through incentives and information provision. Beyond the short term, agriculture needs to focus on developing drought-tolerant crops and species less vulnerable to storms and fires. And, most importantly, there is a need to focus on easing the movement of species as they adjust to climate change pressures.


Each such initiative brings long term economic opportunity that will overcome initial investment costs.


Conservation and Restoration


Overall, Canada`s ecosystems are for the most part intact but stressed. Though the expanses of agricultural lands, clear cut forests, depleted ocean systems and paved over urban areas account for a significant percentage of our land and seascape, the opportunity to conserve and restore remains an option for Canada. Along with targeted ecologically based restoration, concerted effort towards the conservation of ecosystems is an opportunity for positive expressions of caring for our environment.


To give conservation a global context some sobering statistics from the 2014 Living Planet Report tells us that the Earth has lost half of its vertebrate species since 1970. There has been an 83 percent decline of species in tropical regions of Latin America. The most affected group of species are those found in freshwater as they have been reduced in number by 76 percent over the last 40 years. In Canada, the declining state of the woodland caribou is indicative of Canadian neglect of conservation. The latest assessment by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) posits a 50% decline in the number of woodland caribou (the animal depicted on the Canadian quarter) between 2005 and 2013.


A comprehensive national conservation plan must seek input from interested parties, namely, First Nations, Provincial and Territorial Governments, businesses and Canadians. A unilateral announcement of a National Conservation Plan does not make for a truly national plan. The objective of such collaborative work would be to first identify priorities, gaps in knowledge and areas for protection while building on complementary conservation work such as Plan Nord in Quebec, and similar commitments by the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario, among others. After all, Provinces and Territorial governments control most of Canada’s ecological resources.


Three specific conservation initiatives are proposed: water conservation, protected areas and restoring environmental oversight:


Water Conservation:

Climate change causes drought and extreme weather events which will alter water distribution and hence availability. Water is relatively plentiful in Canada, estimated at 7% of the world`s renewable freshwater. However, agriculture, oil and gas and hydro energy generation and other industries have increasingly encroached on domestic needs. Our drinking water is being compromised. Canada currently does not have legally binding standards for water quality. Without such standards, lagging investment in infrastructure and encroaching polluting industries has resulted in 1838 drinking advisories at the beginning of 2015, one of which has been in place for over 17 years. So much water and not a drop to drink is simply wrong.


Export of water other than though bottled water has not been permitted, despite periodic pressure from the USA. Now, we face shortages of water on a regional basis. The receding melting glaciers in the Rocky Mountains raises the spectre of serious water shortages downstream on the prairies. Agriculture can expect to be in intense competition with other users. California’s extensive drought in the recent past attests to the difficulties. A policy addressing access to water resources and quality standards must be addressed along with correcting the reduced federal responsibilities brought on by the modifications to the Navigable Waters Act, the Fisheries Act and the Environmental Assessment Act in the past four years through Omnibus Bills.


Terrestrial protected areas total around 10% of Canada while marine protected areas amount to about 1%. Many of these areas are protected in name only as logging, mining and other non-congruous activities (fishing in marine areas) are permitted to occur within them. Globally, the world has adopted a target of protecting 17% of terrestrial biomes and 10% marine biomes y 2020. Scientists on the other hand are calling for a 50% regime of protection. Calls of “nature needs half” are increasingly being heard throughout the world and Canada.


As essential as protected areas are, conservation of biological diversity or nature is not achieved solely by establishing protected areas. Investment in their management is also a basic requirement. Further, as noted above under climate change, corridors for migrating species must also be given serious consideration as climate change drives habitat alterations. Protected areas are ideally poised to serve as corner stones or anchors on the land or seascape for such corridors. Large carnivores, often the keystone species, the species which control the balance of species in an ecosystem, need large spaces. Wolves for example can range from 50 to over 1000Sq.Mi. The larger the species the greater space is required, hence the increased call for a 50% protection regime.


Restoring legislative oversight is critical as an underpinning to all of the environmental considerations. Conservation in particular is dependent on the backing of strong Environmental Assessment, Fisheries, and Water legislation. All three have been gutted in the past four years. The Species at Risk Act (SARA), though not gutted, has not been implemented. 
The role of the Canadian Government in environmental assessment must be reviewed with particular reference to assuring the input of affected parties by strengthening the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. The costs of environmental damage associated with poorly evaluated (or non-evaluated) projects may far exceed the economic gains they produce.


Similarly the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA) was gutted to provide federal protection only for Canada’s busiest rivers, lakes and oceans (reduced to three oceans, 97 lakes and 62 rivers) from the original coverage for 2.5M lakes and rivers. The new Act differs from its antecedent role as a tool for environmental protection. The Supreme Court had expressed itself on the matter by recognizing that the NWPA had expansive environmental dimensions beyond issues of physical barriers. In effect, any waterway not on the list can now be affected by some form of diversion, blockage or construction. It is no longer protected by federal law. The once federal responsibility is now in the hands of provinces, municipalities or individuals. This along with changes to the Fishery Act has left the water based resources open to unprecedented denigration.


The 2002 Species at Risk Act (SARA) has not been altered by the current Canadian government, but it is not being implemented. Annually, species are assessed by the mandated science committee under SARA to advise the Minister on a recommended risk status who then through the Cabinet lists them under the Act. Despite being listed some two years ago as a threatened species, only six of 51 woodland caribou recovery plans have been drawn up.


Further, 67 species put forward by the advisory committee in 2011 have yet to be considered by Cabinet. Without being listed they are not legally protected and their critical habitat has not been identified nor secured. Internationally, when species are listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) member countries are expected to amend their domestic legislation within 90 days. Canada has failed to do this and in so doing is further deteriorating its international standing while unlawful trade of wildlife is taking place in Canada. Not adhering to CITES places Canada’s trading status at risk.


Citizen involvement


The next generation of Canadians is being deprived of the opportunity to make a connection with nature. Eighty-five percent of Canadians are urban and technologically focused. Limited exposure outside of cities along with smart phones, tablets, computers or TV screens gives the next generation little opportunity for a casual connection let alone having a transformative experience with nature. It requires a concerted effort to achieve such an exposure. This comes at a time when school boards are dealing with contracting budgets and overly protective rules that hinder true exploration and experiences in nature.


The exploration and thus connection with nature has many benefits. The evidence on health benefits, both mental and physical, is mounting. Individuals who have a strong connection to nature are less prone to depressions, obesity, prolonged recoveries, onset of dementia, Alzheimer disease, stress, stroke and Type II Diabetes. The importance of a relationship with nature to reducing the cost of health care must not be overlooked.


Without the connection, empathy for and love of nature cannot develop. Alienation leads to a loss of support for conservation of nature. Conservation has yielded an extensive network of parks and protected areas that in turn provide the opportunity to connect directly with nature. As protected areas expand in meeting global targets, the opportunity presents itself to play an increasing and significant role in providing the connection of people with nature. The National Conservation Plan announcement of Connecting Canadians to Nature by the current government is a step in the right direction. However, more needs to be done.


Protected areas are ideally placed to play a significant role in exposing people to nature. Many programmes have been initiated such as “learning to camp” and giving out national park passes to youth. These however touch a small proportion of the Canadian populations and so more is necessary which can be achieved by promoting involvement through citizen science initiatives, school curricula, get outdoors campaign, and in general building up awareness through peer encouragement.

Supporting a coalition among interested partners would be an ideal role for the federal government. Some ideas that would be pursued include:


Launching a national incentive programme to get people out into nature (not unlike the successful “Participaction Program”).


Growing a National community of organizations that share an interest, capacity and mandate to connect people to nature.


Formulating an action plan with examples of supporting tools that can help direct the growth of this national movement.


Bringing the voice and participation of young people across the Nation by building capacity, leadership and inspiring others to connect with nature, particularly through protected areas.


Building sharing innovative best practices in connecting people with nature, including engaging new partners and sectors of society.


Demonstrating, using evidenced-based information, the vital need, barriers and motivators to connect people to nature, and support the social science community to build this knowledge base.


In conclusion, Canadians recognize that investing in protecting the environment benefits Canadians. Otherwise, our health and economy is placed at risk. Canada is an altruistic country, not only multicultural but also poised to be one that accommodates multispecies.

Nikita Lopoukhine retired in 2005 as Parks Canada’s Director General of the National Parks Directorate and is Emeritus Chair of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.

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