The aimlessness of federal environmental leadership

Federal environmental policy under the Liberal Party often reminds me of Sunday drives with my grandparents as a child.The conversation is pleasant enough.  But it proceeds at a snail's pace.  Never arrives at a particular destination.  And any criticism of the driver is met with a wounded expression.On World Environment Day, it's appropriate to reflect on how Canada is doing with respect to protecting our precious environment.The short answer is:  not good.A close examination of Canada's environmental record reveals that in those areas where progress is occurring it is almost inevitably the result of municipal or provincial leadership.  The federal government is often missing in action, dragging its feet, or moving in entirely the wrong direction.With respect to climate change, the Trudeau government is struggling to make good on the emission reduction targets it agreed to under the Paris Convention.  What is lacking is both a real sense of urgency and a clear roadmap for meeting the 2030 emission targets laid out in its Pan Canadian Climate Framework.  Watching communities from B.C. to New Brunswick inundated by record floods again this spring, we can see firsthand why we don't have time to waste on this issue.Other environmental files are similarly mired.Take the government's recently introduced Impact Assessment Act.  This new law is central to deciding whether things like pipelines, dams or new mines are compatible with broader goals of clean air, healthy ecosystems and clean water. Chucking the remnants of the Environmental Assessment Act --ruthlessly gutted by the Harper government -- was the right idea.  And the new Act certainly acknowledges the need for new approaches – whether it is grappling with the broad implications of climate change or looking at the combined impact of different industrial activities on ecosystems.But when the Impact Assessment Act landed in Committee, it quickly became apparent that it is a mess.  The government itself introduced more than 150 amendments but refused to budge on key issues.  Absent from the legislation are needed advances such as making broad-scale assessments mandatory for potentially damaging new industrial activities or requiring the federal government take a more hands-on role to avoid what one expert called “the fox in charge of the henhouse” nature of proponent-led project assessments.  It doesn't seem that our country will get the modern and effective environmental assessment system it deserves any time soon.Canada, of course, is blessed with spectacular wild areas, but we tend to take this legacy for granted – and so does the Trudeau government.   Again, the timeline for action here is short: Canada agreed to protect at least 17% of its land and inland waters and 10% of its marine environment by 2020 when it signed the International Convention on Biodiversity.  Today, we are at an abysmal 10.6% and badly lag the global average of 15% (leaving us fourth last among the 35 OECD countries).The recent federal budget committed new funding to address this gap, but concerns remain that the government is looking for shortcuts, through things like counting improved management measures instead of actually protecting acres on the ground.  How bizarre that Stephen Harper's record on protected areas is starting to look pretty good stacked up against Justin Trudeau's.Endangered species, meanwhile, are still waiting for help.  The federal government has stepped up the process for listing species-at-risk from glacial to leisurely.  But getting listed remains far from a recipe for recovery: a recent University of Ottawa study found 85 percent of over 350 species tracked under the Species at Risk Act have seen no improvement or have deteriorated since being added to the list.  On species such as boreal caribou, the federal government has been content to punt the ball to the provinces, which have promptly dropped it.  Species are not falling between the cracks in the current system – they are lost in a chasm of conflicted economic interests, lack of resources, and provincial indifference.  Only the federal government can end this biodiversity crisis by getting proactive.After an impressive and extensive Committee process, Canadians await any signs of life from the government on the important task of renewing the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) – that critical piece of legislation that protects our health and that our families from air pollution, water contamination and toxic chemicals.  Is it too much to ask that Canadian kids should enjoy the same level of protection from cancer-causing chemicals as children in Europe and other industrialized nations?  CEPA is as much about public health protection as it is environmental policy.  It's not working at the moment and needs fixing.Finally, the long-promised reforms to charity law, and an official end to the Canada Revenue Agency's politically motivated audits of environmental organizations, are completely stalled.  Canada's most important environmental charities still live under threat of being closed down by the CRA – the same CRA that has been dragging its feet in taking on the Cayman Islands bank accounts of Canada's tax-evading elites and largest corporations.  Talk about completely misplaced priorities!Despite its many green commitments in the last election, Canada has yet to see the necessary environmental progress under Justin Trudeau.  This matches the legislative torpor that gripped environmental policy-making in the 1990s under the Chrétien and Martin governments.  When it comes to the environment, it seems, one our country's greatest challenges – then as now -- remains the listless attitude of the federal Liberal Party.Canadians, and the planet, deserve much better.Rick Smith is Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute and the co-author of two best-selling books on the human health effects of pollution.