Election or no election, federal politicians need to get moving on these top issues this fall.
Retiring CP parliamentary reporter Jim Brown made a noteworthy admission when he said in a recent interview with The Hill Times that he was "tired of writing stories speculating about what the Harper government or what the Ignatieff opposition is doing to position itself in time for the next election". I suspect there are many who share Mr. Brown's ennui. Election or no election, though, federal politicians need to get moving on these top issues this fall.
1. Federal Sustainable Development Act: Remember how Facebook and Twitter came out of nowhere and changed the entire architecture of social communications? Well, it may not be too much of an exaggeration to say that the Federal Sustainable Development Act is poised to play a similar role in the realm of environmental policy. The act has remained below the radar since it came into force last summer, but that's about to change because it compels the federal government to introduce and implement a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS) in the very near future.
The act alters the machinery of government as it relates to federal environmental decision-making. First, it legislatively mandates that a cabinet committee has oversight of the development and implementation of the pending FSDS. This is a step toward putting the environment at the centre of government. Second, Treasury Board will play a pivotal role in implementing the FSDS. Again, this is another step toward putting the environment at "the Centre". Third, the Environment Commissioner can report to the public annually on the government's progress under the act. Finally, to create an added incentive to work toward the FSDS, the performance contracts of senior bureaucrats will include provisions for meeting the objectives of the strategy.
A draft strategy, which cabinet is poised to release in the coming weeks, will go to the Environment Committee and the Environment Commissioner for review.
All of the tools the government needs to introduce a strong sustainable development strategy — one that puts the environment at the heart of the government's most important decisions — are there in the act. The Environment Committee and the Environment Commissioner will have plenty of opportunity this fall to work with the government in strengthening the strategy if need be.
2. Bill C-311 — The Climate Change Accountability Act: I'm not as enamoured of environmental targets as some others are. In fact, we've seen that the existence of targets can lull the public into a false sense of security. Canada's Kyoto target is a case in point. You set a target and then walk away from the issue, right?
Targets have not become worth the paper they are written on. Government can wriggle out from its commitment or simply ignore it, often with impunity. The Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act is another case in point.
Some have dubbed this phenomenon "targetitis".
I'm much more of a fan of focusing efforts on the design and implementation of robust underlying policy mechanisms that will move our society and economy in the right direction.
That said, there is probably a place for targets when the government's own policies are non-existent or of such a dubious quality that they have little or no chance of achieving the important public policy objectives in connection with which they were promised.
The government's target for GHG emission reductions by 2020 is a case in point. The target lacks the level of ambition required to address the very serious climate change threat coming down the pike. Moreover, not only is the government's target too weak, but the policies it has promised to put in place to meet its target have been independently verified by numerous bodies to be woefully inadequate for the task at hand.
That's where Bill C-311 comes into play. The science dictates that we need to reduce our emissions by a minimum of 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. Canada and the other industrialized countries need to agree on this at Copenhagen. The government has failed to act on this imperative, but the opposition parties have shown a willingness to set aside their differences and to work together for this singularly important objective. Bill C-311 is before the House Environment Committee this fall. It is important that it pass.
3. Species at Risk Act: Canada has 555 species that are deemed at risk of disappearing. We have had the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA) since 2002, and yet only one species, the Banff Springs snail, has been fully protected under the act. At this rate it will take the federal government until the year 4776 to protect all of Canada's endangered species. I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that some of these species will not survive that type of delay.
The SARA has never been properly implemented. In fact, since its inception, the SARA has involved a litany of unmet obligations and missed deadlines. What is particularly galling is that as more and more of Canada's species slip closer to extinction we are left with no recourse for the political complacency that underlies the species' plight.
The SARA needs to be fixed where broken and implemented where ignored.
The long awaited five-year review of SARA commenced just before the summer recess and continues this fall at the hands of the House Environment Committee. The review presents an important opportunity for MPs to strengthen the act and provide recommendations for stronger implementation where needed to right the wrong that has been perpetrated against the hundreds of Canadian species that are barely clinging to survival.
4. EcoENERGY Renewable Power Program: This is a federal program that subsidizes the renewable power sector via a production incentive of one cent per kilowatt hour. The government, which opted not to renew the program in the last budget, has confirmed that the program will run out of money this fall.
Money from the EcoENERGY program is earmarked for the deployment of renewable electricity projects, but the spinoffs associated with the money also facilitate R&D, commercialization, and manufacturing of cutting-edge wind turbine, solar photovoltaic, and geothermal technology — all on Canadian soil.
In this year's stimulus budget, the U.S. outspent Canada on renewable energy 14 to one on a per capita basis, and the U.S. version of the EcoENERGY production incentive works out to three times the value of ours.
There are few things in this world one can bank on. Two of them are that a) as the availability of oil continues to dwindle, energy users (i.e., everyone) will be scrambling to purchase alternative sources of energy, and b) governments around the world are mandating the use of renewable energy technologies in response to the threat of climate change.
The global capital for research, manufacturing and deployment of this skyrocketing energy technology will go where it feels most welcome. Need I say more?
Pierre Sadik is the manager of government affairs for the David Suzuki Foundation. The opinions expressed are his own.
This column first appeared in The Hill Times in September 2009.