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From Bad to Worse
Taking a closer look at Canada's
environmental record


BY GARTH SIMMONDS

Ann Rowan of the David Suzuki Foundation says she hopes Canada’s poor results will generate some kind of reaction from Canadians.
“Most Canadians are shocked when they learn about the results of our report. Our environmental performance is not in line with Canadian values.  We hope learning about the gap in values and performance will stimulate action,” says Rowan.

The David Suzuki Foundation helped in the expert review and public summary of the OECD study which Rowan says was more concerned with Canada’s sustainability than environmental irresponsibility.

 “We feel Canada can become a global leader in sustainable living and environmental protection within a generation,” says Rowan. 

“This assessment provides a basis for evaluation; this first report will provide an important benchmark in our progress towards sustainability.”

Dr. David Boyd, an environmental lawyer and senior associate with Polis, the Eco-research Chair of Environmental law is the author of the revealing study, Canada vs. The OECD: An Environmental Comparison. With help from world-renowned geneticist and environmentalist Dr. David Suzuki and researcher Dr. Thomas Gunton, Boyd’s goal is to provide accurate information about Canada’s environmental track record.

This isn’t the first report of this nature. In 1992 an independent study testing many of the same indicators as ones used in the OECD report placed Canada near the bottom. Dr. Gunton believes that this is a major statement to Canada’s lack of environmental awareness. “We were 28th of 30  in 1992 and we are 28th of 30 today.  Usually countries near the bottom can improve faster than other countries because they can adopt existing technologies to catch up,” says Dr. Gunton.  “Canada clearly has not done this.”

There is no excuse for Canada’s poor track record, says Dr. Boyd.
“We certainly have the potential as a wealthy, well educated, and environmentally concerned people,” he says.

“Instead of being like a kid who is failing one subject and needs to focus effort in that one area, Canada is failing in most areas and we need to experiment with different strategies.”

In the latest OECD study, Canada failed to rank in the top three of any of the 25 indicators. Canada also ranked 28th in water consumption and energy efficiency. The most troubling indicator is Canada’s 27th ranking in greenhouse gas emissions despite being a signatory to Kyoto, says Rowan, of the David Suzuki Foundation.

“Canada signed the Kyoto protocol committing itself to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change by six per cent from our levels in 1990,” he says.  “Instead of any reduction, our emissions have climbed by 20 per cent.”
According to Rowan, Canada will need to make drastic reductions to make a visible difference.

“Scientists are now telling us that the global community needs to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases by 50 to 80 per cent to avoid catastrophic climate change.  Judging from the progress other countries (like the UK and Sweden) are making on this same indicator, we know Canada can do better,” says Rowan.  

Another disturbing statistic is that the number of motor vehicles in Canada has more than doubled since 1970 and is currently growing faster than the Canadian population.

Dr. Gunton says Ottawa refuses to accept its position as one of the worst environmental performers.

“The Canadian government acknowledged that we have serious environmental challenges but disputed the findings that we are one of the worst performers in the OECD.”

At a provincial level, Ontario’s Environment Minister John Steele defends Ontario on a number of indicators. Most of our smog comes in from the U.S. and in Ontario we’ve seen a significant reduction in sulphur emissions since 1998.

“Once all four coal generation plants go down in Ontario (2009), there should be a dramatic reduction in smog and green house gases,” Steele said.

News from the OECD is not all grim. Canada improved on 10 indicators, including reduced air pollution, improved sewage treatment, reduced municipal waste, and increased recycling.  Canada also showed improvement in energy efficiency and decreased production of ozone-depleting substances.

“Some positive steps include a new investment in wind energy and increased demand for organic foods,” says Rowan.

But the Conservative government announced in April that it will not be able to reach its Kyoto demands. The country agreed to reduce emission levels by six per cent from its levels in 1990 by 2012. Now, emissions are about 30 per cent above the levels reported in 1990. The government says it is developing a “made-in-Canada” plan as a substitute for Kyoto.

 “Most governments in Canada are not interested in implementing new environmental and health legislation that would alter the status quo,” she says.

“What we don’t see is a more comprehensive approach to adopting government policy and business practices that will make Canada the home to clean, green production of goods, services and energy.”

Rowan is quick to point out that in the absense of action, the trend will continue downhill.

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