A Federal Sustainable Development Strategy: The Devil is in the Details

  • National Newswatch

By Kirsty Duncan, M.P. | June 26, 2013The Federal Sustainable Development Strategy 2013-2016 (FSDS) provides Canadians with a global view of federal environmental priorities, goals, targets and implementation strategies across 27 departments and agencies.Canadians should know what is in the FSDS in order to ensure sufficient detail in the strategy, safeguard good governance, as well as question inconsistencies and gaps, and demand improvements when the government lacks vision.In 2010, Scott Vaughan, the former Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development, expressed concern about the quality of information and standards of goal setting in the FSDS.This year's version of the Strategy is nodifferent. Interim Environment Commissioner Neil Maxwell said: “we found it to be incomplete in some respects. First, some key initiatives are missing, such as the government's responsible resource development agenda and plans to monitor water, land and biodiversity in the oil sands region.”The four priorities listed in the consultation paper for the FSDS are worthwhile. But as with many issues regarding the environment and this government, the devil is in the details. On the first priority, addressing climate change and air quality, Canadians should rightly question the government's commitment. In 2011, the Environment Commissioner said: “I think it's next to impossible that Canada is going to be able to reach its Kyoto target, that's a given. The gap is so wide now, but I think what we've said as well is the basic problems that we've seen now, and the overall federal-wide co-ordination of these climate change programs really needs to get its act together.”He criticised the 35 different climate change programs that were "disjointed, confused, non-transparent.” In the Commissioner's 2012 spring report, he stated that the Conservative's regulatory approach was not supported by an overall implementation plan.In 2011, when the government announced Canada's withdrawal from Kyoto, it was met with outrage in the international community. A spokesperson for France's foreign ministry called the move “bad news for the fight against climate change”; and Tuvalu's lead negotiator said, “For a vulnerable country like Tuvalu, it's an act of sabotage on our future …Withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol is a reckless and totally irresponsible act.”Just six weeks ago, the Minister of Natural Resources faced resounding criticism for casting doubt on climate change science. “People aren't as worried as they were before about global warming of two degrees,” he said. “Scientists have recently told us that our fears (on climate change) are exaggerated.”The Minister is clearly out of touch with scientific, economic and international evidence and opinion. In fact, it is almost twenty years since the second assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made this historic statement: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”The question that begs to be asked is when the government is formulating environmental policy, particularly regarding mitigation and adaptation to climate change, does the Prime Minister rely on the advice of the Minister of the Environment—who at last admitted that “climate change is a very real and present danger and we need to address it”— or the contradictory advice of the Minister of Natural Resources? Moreover, what is the Minister of the Environment doing to convince the Natural Resources Minister that climate change is real?The reality is that after seven years, the Harper Conservatives have yet to take action on greenhouse gas emissions for the oil and gas sector, the fastest growing source of emissions. This winter when the Environment Minister came to the Environment Committee, members were told that the regulations might be available as early as spring 2013. However, it is summer now, and we have yet to see the regulations.Canadians should be demanding the regulations, and asking for a complete accounting of the federal government's expenditures to date, regarding consultation with the oil and gas sector, industry associations, companies, the Government of Alberta, other provincial/territorial governments, First Nations, environmental organizations, etc.Another priority of the FSDS is maintaining water quality and availability. Meanwhile, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan hit their lowest January water levels since record-keeping began in 1918, following more than a decade of below-normal rain and snowfall and higher temperatures that increase evaporation.On the release of the International Joint Commission (IJC)'s recent report, Lana Pollack, the US co-chair of the IJC on the Great Lakes, commented that “we have always depended on the good collaboration with agencies in both governments. When those agencies get cut, we feel it, the lakes feel it.”Given the cuts to Environmental Canada and Fisheries and Oceans in the last two years, which include a reduction of 11 percent of the 7,000 workforce, have these cuts negatively impacted the collaboration between the Canadian and American governments regarding the future health of the Great Lakes?Moreover, what solutions is the federal government considering regarding low lake levels, as lowered Great Lake levels (which many experts attribute to a changing climate) are mentioned — but not acted upon — in Budget 2013, and shrinking Great Lakes could pose substantial challenges to the more than 100 aboriginal communities within the Great Lakes Basin. Lower water levels could mean less cargo, higher costs and lower profitability for the $34 billion Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway shipping industry. Yet another example of how this government's inaction on climate change is having an economic as well as environmental impact.A real opportunity lies in a water strategy: the need for water solutions is becoming increasingly urgent as we have a looming water crisis, and water spending is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2020. What is the federal government doing so that Canada can become a leading water solutions country--how do we build a national water opportunities (or a blue economy) strategy to maximize Canadian capabilities, and who should lead such a plan?In closing, the FSDS “acknowledges the foundational importance of the precautionary principle in achieving sustainable development…holds that where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”Will the government therefore take meaningful and real action on Earth's most pressing environmental challenges, climate change and water quality and quantity or will they just talk the talk?Dr. Kirsty Duncan, M.P., is a Liberal member of parliament (Etobicoke North, elected 2008 and 2011) and critic for the Environment. She has a Ph.D. in geography (University of Edinburgh, 1992) and has taught meteorology, climatology, and climate change at the University of Windsor, corporate social responsibility and medical geography at the University of Toronto and global environmental processes at Royal Roads University. She served on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization that won the 2007 Nobel Prize with Al Gore and is the author of Hunting the 1918 Flu: One Scientist's Search for a Killer Virus (University of Toronto Press, 2003), and Environment and Health: Protecting our Common Future (2008).