By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Call me a naive optimist, but I really hoped the federal government's vaunted Clean Air Act might actually do what the name implies — clean the air. Boy, was I wrong.

Although bits of the legislation that had been leaked over the past few months didn't look promising, I still clung to hopes that the Act wouldn't be all spin, that there would be some substance to it to help restore Canada's flagging environmental reputation and give Canadians optimism. After all, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Environment Minister Rona Ambrose have been boasting for months that they'd come up with a "made in Canada" solution that would make Canada a world leader in clean air.

Instead, what we got was George W. Bush style rhetoric, using language designed to confuse. Much as George W's "Clear Skies" initiative allows pollution to continue increasing, so does Canada's new Clean Air Act. Certainly, there are some minor initiatives in the Act that are truly helpful, but they are completely buried under an avalanche of nothingness.

Let's look at the two big issues Canadians might expect a Clean Air Act to tackle: global warming and smog. Environmental groups and scientists have, for years, been saying that to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse emissions and air pollutants you have to do two key things. First, commit to targets and timelines for each sector of the economy, and then let industry do what it does best — use its vast brainpower of engineers and technicians to meet those targets.

It's worked before. In the 1970s, when smog was plaguing our cities and gasoline supplies were uncertain, government regulations spurred industry to meet tough clean-air requirements. Industry complained and moaned that it couldn't be done. Then, after the regulations came into effect, they just went ahead and did it. That was over 30 years ago. It's high time we updated those regulations — especially now when all the science tells us that global warming has become an urgent problem.

But the new Clean Air Act provides no such timely incentives. Instead of clear, firm targets and timelines to reduce air pollutants, it promises years more consultation with industry. Minister Ambrose has consistently poked fun of the past federal Liberal government for doing nothing but talk for years. Now Canada's "new" government is going to do the same thing.

The Act also ignores our Kyoto commitments, even though Kyoto was a parliamentary decision, not a partisan one, and has the support of the vast majority of Canadians. It is also international law and Canada is the only country to have ratified the agreement that is not even trying to meet our targets. Instead, the new Act's timelines for greenhouse gases are set ludicrously far in the future. In fact, the only real greenhouse gas reduction target is for 2050. Interim targets for emissions are "intensity based" which means pollution can continue to increase, so long as the amount of pollution per unit of energy goes down.

Industries love intensity-based targets, because they amount to little more than standard efficiency upgrades that industries would probably do anyway. The problem is that unless actual emissions go down significantly, it won't slow global warming. So the Act doesn't solve the problem it was supposedly designed to meet. What's the point of that?

For the less charitable among us, the point may have been entirely to distract Canadians' from their growing concerns about our climate and the air we breathe. I don't think it's a stretch to say that a core Canadian value is that we try to be good environmental stewards and responsible players on the international stage. With this piece of legislation, our new government seems to be indicating that those may be values it does not share.

October 27, 2006