By Lisa Gue, Environmental Health Policy Analyst
Well, it could have been worse. But it's got to get better. The federal budget, which Finance Minister Jim Flaherty presented to Parliament and Canadians on Tuesday afternoon, was status quo when it comes to the environment.
Problem is, the status quo isn't good enough.
Budget 2011 maintains short-term funding for some important programs that were set to expire at the end of the month — notably the Clean Air Agenda and Chemicals Management Plan. That's a relief. But on the whole, there's not a lot of new investment in protecting the environment or evidence of a credible long-term strategy for moving Canada towards sustainability.
Let's consider a few specifics.
- The Budget announced $870 million over two years for renewal of the government's Clean Air Agenda — a 30% cut in the average annual investment in this program over the past four years. The Clean Air Agenda includes regulatory activities to improve air quality — regulations that the government has been promising since 2007. Will Prime Minister Harper at last deliver on his pledge to tackle smog?
- The Clean Air Agenda also includes some new money earmarked for climate change and energy efficiency measures. In this category, the surprise announcement of $400 million to extend the popular ecoENERGY Retrofit program for homes has received a lot of attention. We believe that Canadians need incentives to reduce their home's energy use, but this funding will only be available for one more year. Hopefully the Government is serious about energy efficiency regulations and this funding is designed to continue existing home retrofit momentum until regulations are enforced at the end of this funding tranche. To date, in the absence of a broader regulatory framework, the Clean Air Agenda has not been very effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So while we agree with extending these programs, what's really needed is a comprehensive strategy to reduce GHG emissions.
- The Budget makes some progress towards reducing fossil fuel subsidies by phasing out one (of several) special tax write-off for oilsands developments, which will save the federal government $15 million next year. But the remaining $1.4 billion in tax breaks to oil and gas supports an already very profitable industry at the potential cost of investing in clean air and energy technologies, and is at odds with the government's G20 commitment to end oil subsidies.
- The government is providing $200 million to extend the Chemicals Management Plan for another two years. That's important, although it would have been nice to see a longer-term commitment to protecting Canadians from toxic chemicals. The workplan for the next phase of the Chemicals Management Plan involves assessing and managing 3000 "medium priority" substances. That alone is going to take longer than two years.
- Fisheries and Oceans Canada faces reduced funding. With no new investment in DFO announced in this budget, we are concerned that cuts to critical programs will further undermine Canada's ability to manage its fisheries, create and manage marine protected areas, and protect freshwater ecosystems.
Real progress to protect the environment and improve our quality of life doesn't seem to be a high priority for the Government of Canada. Piecemeal spending in the absence of leadership and a credible action for plan achieving sustainability isn't going to get us where we need to be.