By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

Stephane Dion may have passed the first test in his quest to rebuild the shattered Liberal party, but earning the hearts and minds of Canadians will require more than a deft political hand; it will require bold leadership. And that means slaying Canada's biggest dragon — our environmental deficit.

Dion's predecessor, Paul Martin, was famous for slaying Canada's fiscal deficit. But on the environment, Mr. Martin lost his edge, even while polls showed public concern over environmental problems were reaching record levels.

Now, with Mr. Dion as leader, the Liberal party has been given another chance. Mr. Dion has made the environment a key part of his political platform — correctly identifying that protecting the planet's ability to provide for us by stabilizing our climate and absorbing our wastes is one of the key issues of the 21st Century.

Sceptics may immediately cry foul. After all, didn't Mr. Dion already have his opportunity as environment minister under the Martin administration?

Well, yes and no. Mr. Dion may have had the best of intentions as environment minister, but the fact is, the current structure of the federal government renders the position virtually impotent and prevents real change from taking place.

This isn't to say that great things haven't been accomplished by the environment ministry. They have, even though the ministry itself is a relatively new phenomenon. It didn't actually exist until the 1970s, arising as a result of mounting public concern over pollution.

But we've gone as far as we can go with this narrow approach. It isn't working for us anymore. It's far too easy for short-term economics to trump the environment at the Cabinet table. By their very nature, environmental problems tend to be longer term and are too easily ignored by administrations that focus on immediate economic returns in hopes of getting re-elected. Meanwhile, mounting environmental problems like pollution and global warming are costing Canadians billions, hurting our quality of life, and reducing our future capacity to compete in a rapidly changing global marketplace.

Canada isn't the only country facing environmental problems. But we have been slow to change. Other countries, such as Sweden, the UK and Japan, have recognized that moving towards sustainability requires a broader strategic approach.

The environment ministry simply cannot solve big environmental challenges like global warming on its own. Instead we need to develop a system that recognizes that conserving environmental health is, like economic health, a fundamental bottom line. In short, we need a national sustainability strategy — the holy grail of true environmental leadership. This is to the environment what a balanced budget is to the economy.

Under such a national strategy, the health of Canadians and the environment would be a central consideration for how the government plans its agenda and makes policy. Profligate waste, like profligate spending, would no longer be tolerated. The machinery of government would be imbued with an unshakable sustainability ethos that would infiltrate all levels of government decision-making.

A number of steps could be taken to further this end, from creating a Cabinet Committee on sustainable development, to appointing a special advisor to monitor Canada's progress, to establishing a Sustainable Development Advisory Council comprised of the environment minister and representatives from the provinces, territories, First Nations, NGOs, business and labour.

The key to all of this lies with prime minister. The prime minister must own the environmental bottom line as he or she does the fiscal bottom line. It's the only way to move forward.

Canadians have had an earful of environmental rhetoric over the past several years. What they need now is action. Slaying the fiscal deficit required a revolution in government thinking and operation. Nothing less will be needed to tackle Canada's environmental deficit. Our environment is not something that can be tacked onto existing programs and policies. Rather, it must be hard-wired into the process so that environmental sustainability objectives are part of the fundamental bottom line.

Nothing less will slay this dragon.

December 15, 2006