There are many in the environmental movement who see the past 10 years in Canada as a disaster. From one perspective, they are right.
The environmental issue of our time is climate change, and Canada’s government under the leadership of Stephen Harper has failed at every opportunity to address this issue. Harper succeeded a Liberal government that adopted strong targets, but did not match these targets with sufficient action. By contrast, the Conservative government’s plan had weak targets, and it has failed completely in even reaching those modest goals.
Not only has the Harper government failed to lead, it has delighted in its intransigence, obstructing international progress repeatedly at important conferences. In doing so, it has turned Canada’s international reputation for environmental progressivism upside down, and weakened our ability to achieve other national goals, by being seen as uncooperative and out of step with the international community. In fact, our actions internationally on climate are more similar to those of countries like Russia than our allies and friends in Europe.
The government has repealed or gutted almost every important legislative protection for the environment, protections that historically had received wide support from politicians of all parties. These changes were done through an omnibus budget bill, meaning that there was virtually no opportunity for public discussion or debate.
Poll after poll shows that Canadians support effective environmental regulation done in a way that supports the economy — the precipitous actions of the government made it impossible to have the needed debate about how to achieve that goal.
Even worse, if it is possible, Harper and his government have tried hard to undermine the legitimacy of those who advocate for stronger environmental protection. In a government well known for absolute control by the centre, it cannot be accidental that cabinet ministers have branded environmentalists and their allies as “terrorists” for raising legitimate concerns about the impact of the Northern Gateway Pipeline. In the current political context, with Bill C-51 granting the government extraordinary powers to spy on Canadians, such language is serious indeed.
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This abdication of leadership by Ottawa appears to be in service of an economic strategy entirely based on oil. The most basic economic and investment advice speaks to diversification, but this government has bet everything on one commodity. Not only is this economically misguided, but it also puts us on the outside of an international consensus hoping to find a way to blunt the impacts of climate change that we are seeing already, in the arctic, in the prairies, and in the massive storms that have devastated cities like Calgary and cost people, insurance companies, and governments billions of dollars.
Does this failure of leadership mean that the last decade has been a failure for the environment? No. Fortunately, there has been leadership elsewhere. Canadians have a huge respect and love for their natural environment and are often doing the right thing to reduce our impact on the planet, without legislation. Many businesses are incorporating high environmental standards into their plans. Cities have shown important and effective leadership, with real action and an international voice.
The greenhouse gas emissions of Toronto, for example, were by 2012, 15 per cent below 1990 levels (more than required under the Kyoto accord) as a result of city-led climate initiatives and the closing of coal-fired plants by Ontario. Provincial leadership — notably in BC where its carbon tax has coincided with strong economic performance; and more recently from Quebec, Ontario and Alberta — is exciting, effective, and brave. In fact, were Ottawa co-operating, we could see dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and significant job creation, at the same time.
We have seen this potential in other environmental issues, where there has been progress. Cities and provinces have addressed the overuse of pesticides; Canadians are increasingly aware of threats to the health of our freshwater, and much is being done to address some of these, like improving municipal storm water management. New public transit is built or is underway in many cities, and there is a renewed emphasis on the importance of nature to both urbanites and rural Canadians. It would be unfair not to acknowledge the Ottawa role here, as the government has supported a number of new and important protected areas across Canada, and has a significant partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Canada to conserve more land, granting it $50 million a year for five years. These steps all matter.
On the biggest issue, though, one which threatens Canadians and nature from coast to coast to coast; through melting arctic sea ice; to massive storms; to warming and more acidic oceans — the current government has got its policies wrong. Desperately, horribly wrong. For climate leadership from Ottawa, it’s been a lost decade.