Recently, Canada's Environment Commissioner released a report detailing the successes and failures of federal environment programs, especially those dealing with global warming.
Let's just say the part on successes was a little thin.
Neither federal government has come up with a plan to change the fact that Canada's environmental record is now among the worst in the industrialized world, or that Canada has thus far failed miserably to meet our Kyoto targets to reduce the pollution that causes global warming.
The Liberal's environment plan failed because it relied too much on voluntary measures by industry to reduce pollution. It failed because it focused on expensive subsidies. It failed because it focused on individual responsibility rather than market mechanisms. And it failed because of bureaucratic infighting. The Conservatives' upcoming plan will also fail, unless it takes a different tack.
Voluntary agreements between industry and government should be the first to go. These are often spun as an effective alternative to real regulations. Government and industry meet; agree on voluntary targets and then industry promises to see what it can do. When industry almost invariably doesn't meet the targets, there's no recourse for government, or the people it represents.
As the Liberals discovered the hard way, voluntary measures don't work. Canada has a voluntary agreement with automakers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from passenger vehicles. Yet these emissions are still rising. California, meanwhile, has enacted regulations to ensure automakers comply with the targets.
Individuals need to take responsibility for their own actions, but currently Canadians are stymied by a lack of options or confusion around the "greener" options that are available. Market-based mechanisms, including financial incentives and disincentives on the purchase of consumer goods are far more effective at changing behaviours, as they directly tie individual actions to societal and environmental outcomes.
In other words, goods that cause more pollution should cost more than goods that cause less pollution. The federal government will be much more effective at getting consumers to purchase greener alternatives if it gives them a reason to do so, such as through a variable rate GST. From cars to appliances, market-based mechanisms maintain consumer options while putting a price on pollution.
Any credible plan to flight global warming also has to have targets and timelines. The targets have to be firm and the timelines have to include short-term targets, so the end goals are not so far in the future that they become practically meaningless. Timelines that do not set any targets until 2020 or beyond are practically useless. Targets based on "intensity" are also extremely weak because they allow actual emissions to keep going up.
Right now, the only clear international framework to reduce the heat-trapping emissions that cause global warming is the Kyoto Protocol. Staying within this process is vital if Canada is to take advantage mechanisms within the Accord to help us reach our targets.
For a plan to be effective, there also has to be clear accountability. What department is responsible for what and to whom? Bureaucratic squabblings between ministries must be cleared up and roles and responsibilities clearly assigned, otherwise the buck will always be passed and pollution will continue to increase.
Canada desperately needs environmental leadership. But Canadians have had their fill of feel-good spin, fuzzy, vague programs with no clear targets or timelines, voluntary measures and bureaucratic bafflegab. Canadians want and deserve action on the most pressing environmental challenges facing our country today. The Environment Commissioner has set the challenge. Now it's up to the Prime Minister to act on it.