In the 1980s, Canada was a bright green engine of change, pushing the global community forward on sustainable development and global warming. But now it is falling behind in almost every environmental aspect.
The lead author of the landmark 1987 Brundtland Report, “Our Common Future”, was Canadian Jim MacNeill. The very first international climate change meeting involving scientists and political leaders was held in Toronto in 1988.
Canadian Maurice Strong organised the first World Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972, was the first executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and was secretary-general of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
But after this flourish on the world stage, Canada sat back and did virtually nothing domestically. The country ranks 28th out of 30 high-income countries in terms of environmental sustainability, according to an independent Canadian study. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Canada 27th in terms of environmental performance.
Canada has done virtually nothing in the past 15 years and all ecological indicators have declined, said David Runnalls, president of the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg, Canada, and who has a 30-year history with various governmental and non-governmental institutions around the world, including UNEP and the World Conservation Union.
“Sustainable development is alive and well and working in Europe but not in North America,” Runnalls told IPS at a recent conference tracking Canada’s sustainable development efforts since 1987.
Europeans made sustainable development part of their laws and regulations; Canada did not. Instead, governments slashed budgets in environmental departments and corporate leadership stopped being interested in sustainability, he said.
“You couldn’t get 15 minutes with a senior environmental official to talk about sustainable development in Canada,” said Johanne Gelinas, former commissioner of the environment and sustainable development for the Canadian government.
“Sustainable development has never been a priority in the federal government, no matter which party was in power,” she said.
Any progress that has been made in Canada is mainly thanks to non-governmental organisations like Greenpeace forcing governments and industries to act. Today, the corporate sector is moving ahead and could push governments towards creating sustainable policies.
“If large institutions like Canada’s banking sector decided to only buy paper from Forest Stewardship Council suppliers (which have been certified for sustainable practices), it would have a huge impact,” Gelinas said.
Governments are the last place to look for leadership, say former government ministers.
“Ninety-five percent of government effort is to keep everything going as usual,” said Tim Sale, former health minister in the province of Manitoba.
“Governments only act when they perceive there is a serious emergency. Climate change is not seen as an emergency,” Sale said.
The public also doesn’t understand issues like climate change, he said.
“Before the Kyoto Protocol went into force, we knew we weren’t going to try to meet our international obligations,” confessed David Anderson, Canada’s minister of the environment from 1999 to 2005.
Under that international agreement, Canada had promised to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by six percent from its 1990 levels by the 2008-2012 period. Its emissions are now 34.5 percent above 1990 levels.
There was simply too much pressure from the oil sector, heavy industry, the oil-rich province of Alberta and the U.S. government, Anderson said.
“The media didn’t support us and the United States wanted us to fail,” Anderson said.
He also says that the word “sustainability” has been so misused by governments and industry that everything is portrayed as “sustainable”, including traditional economic development.
Given the absence of any real leadership, civil society has been the driver when it comes to putting sustainable solutions in place, says Robert Gibson, an environment and resources expert from the University of Waterloo.
The environmental NGO Équiterre in Montreal not only does energy audits of households, it will retrofit homes and apartments of poor people for free because it convinced landlords, energy companies and governments that they would save more money by paying for the retrofits, Gibson said.
NGOs are generating the ideas and action plans that are of big benefit to society and governments should support their efforts, he said.
But the opposite is happening. When civil society and the mining and gas industry recently agreed on new environmental and social justice policies, the federal government refused to adopt them, said Steward Elgie, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and director of the Institute of the Environment.
The Stephen Harper government is ideologically opposed to regulations, said Elgie.
“If I read my cards right, they’re even considering withdrawing Canada’s financial support for the chronically cash-strapped UNEP,” he told IPS.
NGOs need to push for structural changes in government and in society but are incapable of driving this because they don’t have the resources. Canadians are far from generous when it comes to making donations to NGOs, believing that their taxes — which have declined in the past decade — fund needed social and environmental programmes.
That said, the only way forward on sustainability in Canada is going to be from the bottom up, experts agree. The public, professional and non-professional associations and NGOs have to apply pressure on governments to act and restructure our society so that it can be sustainable, said James Meadowcroft, a political scientist at Carleton University.
In Britain, elites at all levels — pop stars, TV personalities, sports heroes, entrepreneurs, scientists, etc — are all championing action on climate change he said.
“In Canada, we just need to get started. To do one thing well that shows we’re on the right path and get some positive feedback and generate some momentum to tackle this big, complex problem of sustainability,” Meadowcroft said.
(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS-Inter Press Service and IFEJ-International Federation of Environmental Journalists.) IPS