Canada Breaks Its Environmental Agreements

By Erica Dingman

In 1997, nearly 200 countries made a pact to try and save the world from climate change. The Kyoto Protocol set ambitious targets for greenhouse gas reduction, and Canada failed to meet them. After renouncing Kyoto and signing a weaker environmental accord, Canada failed again. Now with the support of its mining, oil, and gas industries, the country is ridding itself of the watchdog agency that tells its citizens about its environmental flops.

On May 8, 2012, Scott Vaughn, Canada’s environment commissioner, announced to the House of Commons that Canada is “unlikely” to meet its commitment to reduce emissions as set forth in the 2010 Copenhagen Accord. When Canada signed the Copenhagen Accord it sought to align its emissions targets with those of the United States. But, in setting these goals, Canada renounced its previous obligations under the Kyoto Protocol. In November 2011 at the Durban climate talks, Environment Minister Peter Kent announced that Canada would officially withdraw from Kyoto. Had it lived up to its Kyoto commitment Canada would have incurred an estimated $14 billion in penalties, Kent said at the time. However, he has recently retracted this figure after coming under fire from the opposition’s environmental critic. The National Democratic Party’s Megan Leslie said this figure was made up.

Both Canada and the U.S. have set their emissions goal at 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. As of 2010, Canada’s emissions per capita were 24.9 CO2, and U.S. emissions were similar, at 23.1 CO2.

Vaughn’s report comes at the same time as fervent parliamentary and public debate has erupted over the apparent “gutting” of environmental regulatory and oversight agencies. The culprit is the release of Canada’s federal budget implementation bill, “Economic Action Plan 2012: Jobs, Growth and Long-Term Prosperity,” also known as Bill C-38.

If passed, this omnibus bill, submitted by the Conservative majority, would bring about not only far-reaching cuts to environmental agencies but significant changes to current Canadian law. Cost cutting measures that diminish state obligations to the long-term well being of the citizenry and favor unfettered development of natural resources are misguided.

First, Bill C-38 would formalize Canada’s withdrawal from Kyoto. Second, the venerable National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) would lose all funding. NRTEE was started by conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1988 to provide analysis and policy advice to the government. It is the only national organization mandated by Parliament to identify, explain and promote the principles and practices of sustainable development. Its purpose is to recommend ways to integrate environmental and economic considerations into the decision-making process. Additionally, NRTEE was established to advise the applicable industrial sectors as to ways of incorporating sustainable development into their activities and creating public awareness.

The bill states that while NRTEE has “filled an important need in the past, a mature and expanded community of environmental stakeholders has demonstrated the capacity to provide analysis and policy advice to the Government. As a result, the Government will introduce legislation to eliminate the NRTEE.”

However, even if NRTEE's role is seen as obsolete, analysis that takes place within academia and other policy advisory institutes will now be fragmented, resulting in less accessibility to both public and private sectors; less clarity in the effectiveness of government policy and programs; and a breakdown in the evaluation of government performance. NRTEE's de-funding could be related to reports it has issued that are critical of government policy.

Since its inception, NRTEE has released a substantial number of reports on issues such as climate, energy, water, biodiversity, and governance. Among these is a Government-mandated analysis of Canada’s Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act (KPIA).  KPIA stipulates that the government is obliged to prepare the yearly Climate Change Plan, outlining the measures and policies enacted to ensure that Canada meets its Kyoto obligations. Under KPIA, NRTEE is charged with providing research and analysis of the Plan.

In its 2011 report, a NRTEE graph demonstrated that Canada’s GHG emissions inventory has risen from just short of 600 MT CO2 in 1990 to 750 MT CO2 in 2008-09. Despite a minor dip in emissions recently, the various trend lines projecting out to 2020 do not look promising. In fact, they show a substantial increase in emissions.  

Whether NRTEE's defunding was a result of its issuing of such ominous reports is unclear. However, many do not think the correlation is a coincidence. Prime Minister Harper has stated that Canada is positioned to be an energy superpower, and publicizing its rising emissions doesn’t bode well for a nation charting the way for expansion of its hydrocarbon industry.

Parliamentary debate of C-38 exemplifies the potential correlation between NRTEE’s funding and Canada’s options for meeting its greenhouse gas emissions goals. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said, "Why should taxpayers have to pay for more than 10 reports promoting a carbon tax, something that the people of Canada have repeatedly rejected?” David McLaughlin, President of NRTEE refuted this number and retorted, "We never said … 'you're not doing enough' or 'your targets aren't right.' What we tried to do is take the government's targets and say here's some advice on the best way to do it." Notably, McLaughlin is a former chief of staff to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.  

Many expected that the 2012 budget would cut environmental programs but the scope of change has far exceeded the expectations of concerned parties.  One proposed change calls for the repeal of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) of 1992. It would be replaced by a new version that would be considerably narrower in scope. The Act forms the basis of federal environmental reviews of industrial projects. Under the new Act, the Government would streamline the environmental review process. Permit licenses for projects that have a potential environmental impact would come under a “one project, one review” process. The proposed change has garnered support from the mining and energy sectors, which find the current process cumbersome. The proposal would set timelines for key regulatory permitting processes, as well as for the hearings and assessment phase to 24 months for panel reviews and 12 months for standard environmental assessments.

Prior assessments were not subject to such fixed timelines. The National Energy Board (NEB), was created in 1959 to oversee “international and inter-provincial aspects of the oil, gas and electric industries.” Mandated with promoting safety, environmental protection and economic efficiency in the energy sector, expects a flurry of applications for new natural resource projects. A report by the NEB says that strain on existing resources may force the agency to suspend its energy information program, which is used to make regulatory decisions. Opposition parties and environmental groups doubt that the NEB has the resources to thoroughly review energy projects.

While some claim that this “one project, one review” process translates into more jobs and a stronger economy, others have countered that this it would have a negative impact on both the environment, and freedom of speech.

Briefly, the CEAA  was meant to predict the environmental effects of proposed projects before they were carried out to minimize or prevent any potentially adverse effects. Any person or entity was able to participate in the review process. The proposed process appears to narrow the field of those entitled to participate in the environmental assessment process. The 2012 CEAA proposed text defines an “interested party” as a “person [who] is directly affected by the carrying out of the designated project or if, in its opinion, the person has relevant information or expertise.”

Many environmental groups have responded angrily to what they see as an affront to environmental law and free speech.  In an email to the Canadian Press, Greenpeace spokesman Keith Stewart said: "It is an affront to democracy to bury such far-reaching changes to laws Canadians depend upon to help protect our environment in the budget implementation bill in order to avoid public scrutiny." Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has said that the government is not trying to avoid public scrutiny by putting the environmental law changes into Bill C-38.

Canadian conservation groups have launched a campaign in protest of Bill C-38. The ‘Black Out Speak Out’ campaign, will culminate in website blackouts on June 4, in a symbolic act intended to focus attention on government actions, said Peter Robinson, CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation. The move is partly a response to the governments scapegoating and targeting of conservation groups in the past few months. Joe Oliver, minister of natural resources, has accused “environmentalist and other radical groups” of blocking Canada’s “opportunity to diversify our trade. Their goal is to stop any major project no matter what the cost to Canadian families in lost jobs and economic growth.”

Canada is not alone in its attempt to grow its economy through austerity; governments worldwide are cuttings costs and pursuing other means to put their economies back on track. But Canada has fared relatively well throughout the crisis, having the best GDP growth rates of G7 countries for two consecutive years.  The government should eliminate redundancy to lower costs, but such “streamlining” should not be at the expense of the democratic process. To close agencies that provide valuable knowledge to government and the public, while simultaneously slashing the budgets of remaining oversight agencies, does not take into consideration the balance between economic prosperity and the common good. It’s not whether development takes place but how it takes place that matters.



Erica Dingman is an Associate Fellow at the World Policy Institute whose work focuses on the Arctic, Inuit, and Canada/United States relations. She holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School.

(Photo courtesy of Tavis Ford)

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