June 21, 2004

Commentary: Election 2004

The environment issue: up in smog?

By: Colin Isaacs
To no one's surprise, environment hardly makes a showing in the federal election campaign. When it does get a mention, party positions are not at all inspiring. Since 1984, when Prime Minister Mulroney appointed Suzanne Blais-Grenier to the position of environment minister, the federal government has steadily devolved most key environmental responsibilities to the provinces.

At the same time, the transboundary nature of environmental problems has led countries to seek solutions through international negotiations, to date having produced more than 300 Multilateral Environment Agreements (MEAs). These accords represent a more significant step towards world government than exists in any other area except trade.

Canada today plays a small role in the international environmental agenda. Our government's commitment to environmental science and good environmental policy has declined from a world class position in the early 1980s to

minor league statis by current international standards. Even decisions on ratification of MEAs, a task performed by the government and not by Parliament, are influenced more by trade, international relations, and domestic public opinion than by good environmental science.

For example, Canada still seeks to keep chrysotile asbestos out of the Rotterdam Convention, a relatively mild MEA that requires prior informed consent before listed hazardous substances can be sent to an importing country. There is no science which suggests that importing countries should not be made aware of the health hazards associated with the asbestos, but the government can get away with a policy designed to help the asbestos industry because Canadians have not yet become aware of the damage that our continued promotion of asbestos can do to our international reputation.

When environment does get a mention in the campaign, it is as depressing as anything I've seen in 35 years of observing elections. Though Paul Martin has spoken fluently about the important role of environmental performance

in a country's competitive positioning he did little to use his position as Finance Minister to introduce national environment and economy initiatives. The leader of the opposition appears not to understand the difference between climate change and smog. The NDP has a green agenda that includes financial support to the automobile industry; the Quebec party presents a fairly strong sustainable development position, as long as you live in Quebec; and the Green party appears to see winning the prize of public election funding as perhaps more important than influencing Canada's green agenda.

The entire federal environmental agenda, highlighted with the Green Plan during the later Mulroney years, has degenerated to the level of a species at risk. Unless the incoming federal government performs much better than the parties in the campaign, Canada's environmental performance may well begin to have significant negative impact on our economic performance.

An excellent commentary on the role of MEAs in today's trade agenda has been developed by Konrad von Moltke for the International Institute for Sustainable Development and can be found at http://www.iisd.org/pdf/trade_whither_meas.pdf

(Colin Isaacs, head of the CIAL Group and publisher of the Gallon Environment Letter, reviews environment-related trends in policy (corporate and government) and legislation for ELW. Comments may be E-mailed to cisaacs@compuserve.com.)

Editor's note: The main parties' environmental platforms - running the gamut from vague and unfocused to detailed, specific plans - may be viewed on their respective Web sites: www.liberal.ca; www.conservative.ca; http://ndp.ca; www.blocquebecois.org; www.greenparty.ca. As of June 18, the latest EcoLog poll indicated that the NDP would be likely to do the most for the environment, if elected, while the Liberals and Conservatives were ranked equally in this regard.

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