Ocean Mist

Issues and trends shaping our environment, health and economy

22 Mar 2013

Failure to lead

Posted by Michael Keating

Although there are many examples of sustainability in Canada, there is no overall vision or common approach, despite pleas for one from many sources, including various governments, business leaders and the public.

In the mid-1980s, the World Commission on Environment and Development, known as the Brundtland Commission after its leader, popularized the term sustainable development. Their work inspired a group of Canadian environment ministers, along with industrial, environmental and academic leaders, to create the National Task Force on Environment and Economy. It was a bold and pioneering move that put 17 people with widely divergent views on the environment together in one room. Despite these differences, the group rapidly came to consensus on a wide range of difficult topics.

In its 1987 report, http://www.ccme.ca/assets/pdf/pn_1090_e.pdf the task force said its main objective was to promote environmentally sound economic growth and development. It stated: “The economy and its participants exist within the environment, not outside it; we cannot expect to maintain economic prosperity unless we protect the environment and our resource base, the building blocks of development.”

The task force called for “complete integration of the environment and the economy,” acknowledging this was a tall order for any country. It said we need to minimize environmental impact and future cleanup costs by advanced and integrated planning. It said the traditional remedial, reactive approach should be replaced by “anticipate and prevent” as the dominant concept underlying environment-economy integration.

The report offered 40 recommendations to make Canada more sustainable, including pricing natural resources to promote efficient use, projects to demonstrate environment-economy integration and increasing recycling.

It said governments and industry must develop and assume new responsibilities to successfully integrate environmental considerations, but put the onus on governments to provide leadership on moving the country toward sustainability. “Governments act as trustees of the resources we will pass on to future generations. Governments must therefore exercise comprehensive and farsighted leadership in supporting and promoting sustainable economic development.”

The 17 leaders called for Canada’s first ministers meetings to put environmental issues on a par with and linked to economic development, and to integrate environment and economy issues at a senior government level.

The task force called on governments to form round tables on environment and economy that would bring leaders from governments, business and society together to achieve consensus on how to integrate economic and environmental planning. It said this was one of the most important recommendations.

The goal of the round tables was to discuss and promote environment-economy integration. The said a national round table should be formed from representatives of the provincial and territorial round tables plus members from the federal cabinet and national non-government organizations, labour, academic and business organizations.

Following that report, round tables or their equivalent were created in every province and territory and at the federal level. However, they rarely achieved the goal of creating a forum for discussion and consensus building among senior leaders from different sectors of Canadian society.

Mainly, they became advisory bodies to the governments, and over time most were dissolved. The National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy was abolished by the federal government in 2012. As of early 2013 there was still a Manitoba Round Table for Sustainable Development, and a Minister’s Round Table on Environment and Sustainable Prosperity under the Nova Scotia Ministry of Environment and Labour.

What happened? There were probably several factors. There is government reluctance to share power with other decision makers. There were too few people in governments and business who understood the value of a multistakeholder process, and were willing to make it work over a long period of time. It is not easy for people to understand the interconnections among environmental, economic and social issues. Even when they understand what is involved, governments and business find it hard to voluntarily make major shifts in economic development toward more sustainable products and processes. How do we move to sustainable energy before we do too much damage to the climate system? How do we get onto a more sustainable transportation system when people are buying lots of big cars?

As a result history repeats itself. We are stuck in the same climate of finger pointing and lack of agreement as in 1980s when a few visionary people managed to create the national task force and round tables.

In a revealing interview, the last president of National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, said government, industry and environmentalists are again embroiled in a polarizing debate that is jeopardizing Canada’s economic prosperity. David McLaughlin suggested that the government should remember the panel’s mandate of bringing business and environmental interests together as it attempts to support economic growth and prosperity as new conflicts emerge between stakeholders and provinces in Canada.

The national task force suggested the federal, provincial and territorial governments create conservation strategies, which it called “blueprints for sustainable economic development.” It said they were needed, “to ensure that our renewable resource base is sustained for future utilization, and to ensure that we preserve genetic diversity and maintain essential ecological processes and life support systems.”

However, there is no national conservation or sustainable development strategy that might coordinate the many laws and statements at different government levels as well as programs by corporations and non-government organizations.

The closest we have is a Federal Sustainable Development Act that says: “sustainable development means development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” It said the federal government, “accepts the basic principle that sustainable development is based on an ecologically efficient use of natural, social and economic resources and acknowledges the need to integrate environmental, economic and social factors in the making of all decisions by government.” However, this act only applies to federal government departments.

There is no longer a national state of the environment report let alone a national sustainability report to provide a detailed overview of how we are doing with issues and context, such as the driving forces of change and interconnections among issues. There were three national state of the environment reports in Canada, the last in 1996. (Canada does produce a regular State of the Great Lakes report in conjunction with the United States, as required by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreements between the two nations. These reports have indicators, and provide context and perspective.)

What we have is the Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators program, http://www.ec.gc.ca/indicateurs-indicators/, which reports on 40 environmental issues. The role of this program is to: “measure the progress of the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy, report to Canadians on the state of the environment, and describe Canada’s progress on key environmental sustainability issues.”

The world is going through major environmental, economic and social changes. Some, like the fiscal problems facing many countries should be relatively short term. Others, like the global population increase, combined with ageing populations in many developed countries, a very long term. The ongoing shifts in industrial production among various countries are unpredictable. Climate change is already launched, and will be with us for centuries. Species extinctions are permanent.

Over the years, Canada has made progress toward environmental sustainability on some fronts, but is slipping on others. We have no set of national sustainability goals to serve as a map in these uncertain times.

It was a whole generation ago the National Task Force stated: “With good will, leadership and new processes for decision making and planning, we can meet our responsibility to future Canadians by managing carefully and protecting the resources we hold in trust for them.”

We still have no coordinated approach that would try to get the key players to agree on goals and directions. We have no measuring stick that will pull together the big picture and help us understand if we are becoming more or less sustainable as a nation.

Unless we make decisions to try to plan for more sustainable forms of development, we will continue to have a fragmented approach and little sense of where we are trying to go.

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