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Commissioner’s report shows Canada must do more for environment

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Canadians expect to have our environment protected, and to know how it’s being protected. A report from Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development shows we’re being short-changed.

“In many key areas that we looked at, it is not clear how the government intends to address the significant environmental challenges that future growth and development will likely bring about,” commissioner Julie Gelfand said of the report, which used government data, or lack thereof, to assess the government’s success or failure to implement its own regulations and policies.

Among other things, the report concludes Canada is not on track to meet its greenhouse gas emissions targets, has delayed monitoring of oil sands pollutants and lacks plans to monitor the oil sands beyond next year, and has no clear guidelines regarding what projects require environmental assessments. On top of that, the government has been promising oil and gas sector emission regulations since 2006, but has yet to release them. It claims new regulatory proposals were completed a year ago, but the report finds those are based on consultation only with “one province and selected industry representatives” — all unnamed. The oil and gas industry is Canada’s fastest-growing source of emissions, especially the oil sands.

The report also found government reporting on emissions to be misleading, especially in not giving due credit. For example, what little progress has been made in reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions comes mainly from Ontario’s move to shut down its coal-powered generators. And total emissions continue to rise. “There’s no overall plan, national plan, for how we’re going to achieve our target,” Gelfand told reporters at a news conference. “And climate change is affecting all Canadians.” She also noted the federal committee responsible for the climate plan hasn’t met in three years.

Although government has a “Northern Strategy,” the commissioner found surveying and the capacity to make charts of the Arctic are inadequate and that icebreaking services have decreased, while vessel traffic has increased. Considering the profound changes from global warming in the north, this is serious.

Sadly, the inability of governments to deal with climate change is neither just national, nor recent. We’ve been saddled with government indolence on climate and pollution for far too long, and in far too many places around the world. But Canada has been singled out for getting in the way of progress at global climate negotiations, and we’re the only country to have pulled out of the legally binding Kyoto Protocol. In rejecting the notion of proven methods to reduce emissions through carbon pricing, our prime minister said, “No matter what they say, no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country.”

But evidence from around the world shows numerous economic benefits from acting on climate change, while failing to act comes with massive and increasing costs, including to human health and well-being. The idea that we should base our economic progress on digging up and selling our resources — from coal to liquefied natural gas to oil sands bitumen — as quickly as possible is absurd. Even if we ignore pollution and global warming, wasting these valuable resources borrows from our children and grandchildren and leaves them nothing in return.

Everywhere, people are demanding change. More than 300,000 attended the People’s Climate March in New York in September, with many more joining scores of solidarity marches in cities around the world. A growing number of business leaders and global organizations, including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, are calling for carbon pricing through carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems to help address the crisis. Religious leaders, including the Pope and Desmond Tutu, have joined scientists and scientific organizations from every continent to demand action.

During the David Suzuki Foundation’s cross-country Blue Dot Tour, I’ve heard from countless Canadians who are doing their part to protect the air, water, soil and biological diversity that keep us alive and healthy. They expect our elected representatives to do the same.

As the environment commissioner said of the government’s inability to meet its own targets, “When you make a commitment, you need to keep it.” That’s especially true when it comes to global warming, the most serious challenge our species has faced.


Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

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