As long as I can remember, being Canadian has always been an immense source of personal pride. We live in one of the greatest countries in the world, which is all the more reason why I’m so disturbed at where we are heading.
In October, my foundation released a comprehensive report on Canada’s environmental performance, compared to other industrialized countries. It shocked me, although I suppose the writing has been on the wall for some time. Still, it was disturbing to see just how poorly Canada’s environmental record stacks up against other wealthy countries.
We rank 28 out of 30 member countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), based on 29 key environmental indicators – things like air and water pollution, heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, pesticide use, and more. Our performance is only marginally better than the two countries at the very bottom: the US and Belgium.
It’s not as though we’re just bad in one area. We’re consistently awful: energy consumption, 28th; greenhouse gas emissions, 26th; water consumption, 29th; sulfur oxides pollution, 27th; number of species at risk, 26th; nuclear waste, 30th, and the list goes on. In fact, Canada did not place first in any of the 29 indicators. We are decent at a few things, like recycling, but our list of failures is long and depressing. What’s more, our performance has not improved over the past decade.
This is not the Canada that I know and love. Over and over, polls tell us that Canadians value their natural heritage and want to protect it for the future. Yet here we are, one of the worst environmental offenders in the world, chipping away at that heritage and threatening the health and well-being of future generations. So how can we fix this mess?
Well, we can’t really compare ourselves to all the countries in the OECD. Some, like Turkey, rank high on the environmental scale, but only because it is still developing and doesn’t have a large industrial base. A more fitting comparison is to look at countries that manage to protect their environment and still have a strong economy. These countries, such as Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, Austria, and Sweden are clearly doing something right. And they show that protecting the environment and thriving economically can go hand in hand.
On many levels, Canada’s governments have failed us. Not because there aren’t well meaning, passionate individuals working within them to protect the environment. Certainly, such individuals do exist, from city councillors all the way to environment minister Stéphane Dion. No, our governments are failing us because there are no overarching, common targets and timelines to achieve our goals. And without a road map, how will we ever know where we’re going?
It has become clear to me that Canada will continue to spin its wheels, and we will fall farther and farther behind other countries until we pass a National Sustainability Act, one that sets out the targets and timelines for our country to achieve sustainability. It isn’t good enough to just talk platitudes about protecting the environment. And it isn’t good enough to lay responsibility in the hands of the environment ministry when so many of the important decisions that affect nature and our health are outside its jurisdiction.
I’m still proud of our big, beautiful country. But we are using her resources at an unsustainable rate. It’s already affecting our quality of life and things will only get worse until we take decisive action, as other countries are already doing quite successfully. If we want our country to continue to be one of the greatest in the world, we must change. We need a National Sustainability Act and we need it now.
Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org
Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org
Kyoto: How does BC measure up?
British Columbia has been slow to address climate change in any meaningful way. The province’s current government released its climate change plan in December 2004, a full two years after releasing a broader energy plan. That energy plan focused on increasing the province’s reliance on fossil fuels, including boosting the production of oil and gas, and opening up the electricity system to more private and fossil fuel-based electricity, including coal-fired power.
BC’s climate change plan is weak, most notably because it does not set emission reduction targets, considering them “neither feasible nor meaningful at this time.” Emission reduction targets are set for agriculture and government operations, but these sectors are responsible for only six percent of the province’s emissions. No targets were set for the oil and gas sectors, road transportation, or electricity. In fact, the climate change plan reiterates the energy plan’s call to develop its “vast hydrocarbon reserves, “including coal, oil, and natural gas. In road transportation, promises are made for “strategic road infrastructure upgrades” and “strategic road improvements.” These vague terms were clarified in 2004 when the government announced its intention to twin the Port Mann Bridge and Highway 1 leading into Vancouver, a project that will greatly increase road traffic and air pollution in the Lower Mainland.
In 1973, the province established the Agricultural Land Reserve. The legislation is intended to protect agricultural land from development and keep urban sprawl from paving over land used to grow food. Though the legislation remains, the last two provincial governments have weakened and undermined it, using loopholes to remove important agricultural areas from protection.
As for electricity, the plan encourages a voluntary goal of having 50 percent of new electricity supply to come from “clean” sources, but BC’s definition of clean electricity includes natural gas and coal co-generation facilities and municipal solid waste incineration, all of which would be significant contributors to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The BC government has yet to sign an agreement with the federal government. The one area where the BC government’s energy plan could be lauded is with respect to energy efficiency. BC has suggested that it will update its Energy Efficiency Act to include more products and higher standards.
• Develop a strong target for GHG emission reductions.
• Address GHGs from oil and gas production and transportation.
• Mandate that all new electricity come from low-impact renewables.
• Agricultural Land Reserve, which protects agricultural land from development and helps to contain urban sprawl.
• A promise to improve the energy efficiency of appliances.
• No emission reduction targets.
• A plan to expand Highway 1 into Vancouver, thereby increasing sprawl, road traffic, air pollution, and GHG emissions.
• A focus on expanding oil and gas production, including offshore, rather than addressing increasing emissions.
• BC has access to a variety of renewable energy resources, including a world- renowned wind resource, but not a single wind power project.
BC’s greenhouse gas emissions increased 23.6 percent between 1990 and 2003. BC’s single greatest source of emissions is road transportation, mostly from personal vehicles. Those emissions have grown considerably due to a consumer shift from cars to SUVs and trucks. Emissions from light-duty trucks have doubled since 1990. This growth is only surpassed by the growth in emissions from the oil and gas sector.
Fugitive emissions – the inadvertent release of GHG from oil and gas production – are the greatest factor in this growth. Though BC’s electricity and heat sector (and the province as a whole) has had historically low emissions due to a large hydroelectricity base, these emissions have increased substantially since 1990. This is because the province has increased the share of power it gets using fossil fuels – mostly natural gas – rather than developing renewable sources of energy.
There is also increasing evidence that hydroelectric power may not be as climate-change-friendly as previously thought. Research has found that significant GHGs could be emitted from large-scale hydro dams due to the flooding of land and the creation of methane when vegetation decomposes. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has begun considering whether these emissions should be included in various countries’ GHG inventories. BC uses hydroelectric extensively.
David Suzuki, Common Ground Publishing Corp.