It's time for Environment 2.0

  • National Newswatch

Today –June 5th – is World Environment Day. Though the United Nations declared it as such in 1972, most years, we must confess, we let this globally observed occasion come and go without even noticing.This spring, however, is different. Like anybody else involved in the environmental debate in Canada we find ourselves – like a bear just emerged from its winter hibernation to a new world -- blinking and disoriented. One month ago today, the Alberta NDP shocked the country and won government on a platform of explicitly reconciling environmental and economic priorities. Recent and unexpected numbers out of China are showing a reduction in absolute carbon emissions for the first time in more than a decade. BC's carbon tax is achieving some excellent results. Together with Ontario's commitment to join Quebec in a carbon cap and trade system the climate change debate is resurgent across the country and meaningful policies are finally being implemented.Within the space of a few months, the entrenched parameters of the environmental discussion have been completely redrawn. Jurisdictions that, until recently, seemed an insurmountable obstacle to progress may lead the way in new thinking. The momentum towards a pollution-reduction solution has returned. And the election of a federal government considerably more friendly to environmental progress seems increasingly plausible in the lead-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in early December in Paris.It's going to be a wild environmental ride in the next six months.Though the terrain of this new world is unfamiliar and many variables as yet unknown, what is clear is that the environmental movement needs to take this moment to recalibrate its focus and overhaul its expectations. The environmental debate needs a reboot: Let's call it “Environment 2.0”. Some of the elements of this renewed approach might include the following:First, though very early days, environmentalists need to start thinking about moving from the trench warfare of fighting fossil fuel infrastructure they've been forced into through years of hostile governments into a more solutions-oriented posture. In a sense, environmentalists drove anti-pipeline campaigns as a surrogate carbon price – a way of changing the cost/benefit calculation of the companies and governments involved. If an actual carbon price, and associated package of ambitious pollution reduction measures, are on the horizon surely this necessitates a change in strategy and tactics.Second, environmental solutions need to be more creative and equal to the challenges at hand. After decades of disinterest from Canadian governments – especially at the federal level – the environmental movement has been conditioned to expect very little. With the federal government having gutted many important environmental laws, we may have the opportunity under new leadership to create truly modern and effective environmental protection architecture. Let's search the world for the best ideas and best practices: Canadians deserve no less. As one example, the Grenelle Act in France provides important new benchmarks in corporate transparency and sustainability reporting. Another thought: There is now broad agreement that the world needs to significantly curtail its fossil fuel use over the next few decades. The debate regarding the implications for one part of our economy – the energy industry -- is well-advanced, but what about all the other problematic chemicals made with petroleum, such as the hormone disruptor BPA? The consumer products that Canadians use everyday are rife with petrochemicals that have rarely been tested for their effects on human health. If the next few decades need to be a transition away from petroleum chemistry in all facets of our lives, some broad policy advances in terms of extended producer responsibility and materials safety are urgently required. Governments and industry alike need to fund technological innovation for a conversion to a cleaner economy.Finally, the environmental movement needs to be more eloquent regarding the ways that the solutions to the two great challenges of our age – inequality and climate change – are linked and, conversely, guard against superficially simple policy remedies that would pit one of these issues against the other. Carbon pricing is complex business with the unintended consequences of poorly designed systems placing shared social and environmental goals at risk. Royalties, income taxes, carbon fees and subsidies need to be understood holistically as we modernize Canada's arcane fiscal policies.With spring finally here, we will be drinking a toast -- this World Environment Day – to our country's renewed potential for environmental progress. But new progress requires new thinking. Let the debate begin.Rick Smith is Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute. Bruce Lourie is President of the Ivey Foundation. They are co-authors of two best-selling books on the health effects of pollution.