April 23, 2007

Canada, U.S. to negotiate particulates annex to bilateral Air Quality Agreement

By: Mark Sabourin

Canada and the United States will begin negotiations on a new annex to the bilateral Air Quality Agreement, this one dealing with particulates, Environment Minster John Baird announced April 13. In 2000, the two governments successfully negotiated an annex dealing with ground level ozone. The original annexes to the agreement covered acid rain and scientific research.

The decision to proceed to negotiation follows the completion of a lengthy, three-year study on particulates. The study concluded that particulates impair air quality and that joint strategies will be needed to address the problem.

The impact of pollution originating in the United States varies from place to place, says Aaron Freeman, policy director with Ottawa-based Environmental Defence. In Windsor, for instance, most of the air pollution, and hence the particulate exposure, originates in the U.S. In other parts of the country, that will not necessarily be the case.

"They periodically make noises about having agreements of this kind," says Freeman of the recent announcement. "Sometimes they come to fruition. More often, they don't."

What matters is what the standards are and how they're implemented. Binding standards for both sides of the border, set at a level that are health protective and in line with global best practices, will be a good thing. But Freeman is skeptical. "Right now, it looks like more of the same."

Particulates are a major factor in respiratory illnesses in Canada, says Freeman, and Canada's regulations are among the most lax in the industrialized world. Provincial standards vary and are generally weak, he says. Nationally, the Canada-Wide Standards are voluntary, weak and unenforceable.

If Canada-U.S. negotiations lead to Canada's adoption of the American approach, that would be a good thing. American federal standards are tougher than our own, he says.

In fact, says Freeman, there is now a piece of federal legislation before the House of Commons that could address domestic sources of particulate emissions, borrowing in part from the American example. The government's widely-panned Clean Air Act, which in an unusual move was referred to committee following first reading in the House of Commons, is now back before the House, significantly amended and retitled the Clean Air and Climate Change Act. It's now a much stronger bill, says Freeman, and among its provisions is a requirement to set ambient air quality standards for eight contaminants, including particulates, within six months, and emission standards within one year. If a region fell below its ambient air standard for a contaminant, the emission standard for that contaminant would have to be met within that region until ambient air quality returned to acceptable levels.

However, the amended bill also includes provisions that would compel compliance with Kyoto Protocol targets, and that makes it unlikely that the government will bring its own bill to a vote. If that's the case, domestic action on particulates may have to await the conclusion of bilateral negotiations. That's a shame, says Freeman. "We would not want to see the promise of negotiations, which does not actually deliver a standard, come in place of taking action here domestically."

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