Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Off the political radar

Environment slips down just about every agenda

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111Environmentalists might be the exception.

Frustrated with lethargic progress on big green issues like climate change, smog standards and sewage dumping, some are wondering if a national campaign might catapult the environment back onto Ottawa's agenda.

 

"It's the devil you know versus the devil you don't know. The devil we know has been all about delay for the last four years," said Jean Langlois, the Sierra Club's senior campaign advisor. "Is an election likely to make matters worse? Quite frankly, it couldn't get any worse. The failure of this parliament to move forward on this suggests some change is needed."

Critics say there are virtually no government-sponsored bills on the environment working their way through the house, and critics say there's been little movement on big issues like greenhouse gas emission targets, new wastewater standards, more grants for wind power or new smog-fighting rules.

The focus is almost exclusively on the economy, and even that has been overshadowed lately by partisan, will-we-won't-we election wrangling.

Compare that to less than a year ago, when the carbon tax debate ate up significant airtime in the last federal election. Former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion made it the central plank of his campaign platform, sparking at least a low-level debate about what to do about Canada's abysmal record meeting our Kyoto targets.

The carbon tax idea was a disaster for the Liberals -- widely seen as too complicated and poorly told -- but environmentalists say it at least sparked some real discussion about climate change.

 

Climate change experts like Langlois are getting increasingly antsy about the country's greenhouse gas targets or lack thereof.

There's less than three months to go before world leaders meet in Copenhagen, Denmark, to sign the next generation of the Kyoto protocol -- a deal that environmentalists and climate change scientists hope will result in radical reductions of the globe's greenhouse gases over the next decade.

Already, Canada has come under stern criticism from the likes of Sir David King, Great Britain's former chief scientific adviser, for blocking a possible deal in Copenhagen.

And critics are nonplussed by the Harper government's less-than-aggressive approach to emission reductions. A cut of 20 per cent from 2006 levels by 2020 is planned. That's not as tough as Kyoto. Scientists and the United Nations are looking for reductions of as much as 40 per cent from 1990 levels in the same time period.

And Canadian environmentalist are still waiting for a list of clear C02 emissions targets for each industrial sector, such as mining, manufacturing and the oil and gas industry. Those will likely only be intensity targets rather than hard caps, but at least there will be some real numbers attached to the plan.

"Copenhagen is the moment where we find out whether we, as a global family, will take action on the biggest threat facing us," said Langlois. "We're a couple of months before that, and we don't know where we as a country stand, what the government legitimately representing us plans to do. It's nearly four years now and there's still no targets."

In an e-mail, a spokesman for Environment Minister Jim Prentice said Ottawa will release its targets before the December meeting.

And he said the Harper government has shown its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by moving to set up a carbon market in Canada, by announcing plans to regulate vehicle tailpipe emissions beginning with the 2011 model year and by earmarking funding for biofuels, wind and other energy alternatives.

"Canada fully intends to play an active and constructive role with a view to achieving a comprehensive and ambitious agreement," said Frédéric Baril. "Canadians do not need or want an unnecessary, opportunistic election and we are working hard at implementing our environmental plan to reduce GHG emissions."

The Tories deserve a few kudos on some fronts, say environmentalists. There's been quite a lot of progress on creating new national parks and protected areas, especially up north. And more money has been put into enforcement -- hiring more environmental officers and giving them more resources. And there's been a fairly constant trickle of money to clean up the country's waterways, from Lake Winnipeg to the Detroit River.

Late last week the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP both voted with the Harper government on employment insurance reform, making a fall election appear less likely.

That rescues a batch of long-shot private members bills from certain death, including an NDP-sponsored bill that would commit Canada in law to far tougher emissions targets -- 80 per cent below the 1990 level by the year 2050.

It's moved pretty far through the legislative process, past second reading and through committee. But it would die if an election were called.

Also killed would be a gaggle of other environmental bills championed by opposition MPs, including one banning bulk water sales, several removing the GST on green goodies like bikes and carbon offsets and one mandating the government to run 10 per cent of its fleet on alternative fuels. And a pre-planned review of the Species At Risk act, which many environmentalists say is toothless and too-easily ignored, has also begun. That would have to be suspended and perhaps begun anew if an election were to intervene.

Also on the horizon is another set of federal regulations dear to Manitoba's heart. In December, Ottawa has promised to unveil new rules and standards on the dumping of waste water in lakes and streams.

Cleaning up Lake Winnipeg's nutrient problem is a top provincial priority, but Manitoba politicians often note that much of the lake's incoming water originates far away in Saskatchewan and even Alberta.

It's not yet clear how tough the standards will be, but those won't likely be delayed by an election.

NDP environment critic and Edmonton MP Linda Duncan says she isn't bucking for a vote. Instead, she wants to work on practical, meat-and-potatoes issues and build consensus among the parties on things like climate change. But she says it's silly to think a campaign would really set progress on green initiatives back much.

"We've had 20 years of delay. What's six more weeks?" said Duncan. "An election would be a little blip on 20 years of inaction."

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Senators Go

Green

A big chunk of the environmental legislation that could get killed by an election originates in the Senate. Here's a taste:

"ö Bill S-212: Championed by musician and TV personality Tommy Banks, now a Liberal senator, the bill would make it easier for citizens to pursue charges against a polluter under the environmental protection act. And if the citizen won the case, he or she would get a share of the fine levied against the polluter.

"ö Bill S-213: If Liberal Senator Grant Mitchell gets his way -- which is a long shot -- you could get a break on your income taxes if you buy carbon offsets for your business or yourself.

"ö Bill S-222: Selling off Canada's bulk boundary water would be pretty much banned if Tory Senator Lowell Murray gets his way.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 20, 2009 A7

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