The Hill Times
Rick Smith
TORONTO—What were the lessons from the campaign trail?
First, it’s no secret that traditional environmental issues—birds, bunnies and big trees—took a back seat this federal election. How many times can you remember candidates talking about fuzzy animals, or even clean air and water (you know, that stuff we need to stay alive)?
But before we start wringing our hands at this turn of events, or—worse yet—start believing the “environment-is-dead” wishful thinking of The National Post, consider that environmental issues have become hard-wired into other debates that are fully mainstream. The “environment,” therefore, was not so much absent from the election as it was transformed into a new discussion. Canadians now rightly associate toxic chemical concerns with rising cancer levels, health and quality of life, and you can’t have a conversation about energy without having a conversation about global warming and the burgeoning jobs market in the clean energy sector.
The election did see a good deal of debate about energy and climate. According to the polls, a majority of Canadians will vote for parties who promised to put a price on carbon pollution in order to take action on global warming. Predictably, the worst performing premiers in this regard—Stelmach and Wall—came out against such action.
The federal Conservatives also flip-flopped and attacked other parties’ cap-and-trade proposals, even though they themselves were promising the same just two years ago. The odd outcome is that we now have the party of the right supporting a more expensive regulatory approach to greenhouse gas emissions instead of the market approach put forward by more left-leaning parties.
Another big energy issue in the campaign was the promise to use federal assistance for the Lower Churchill Falls hydro project in Labrador. Quebec of course opposes this, but a more interesting exchange on the matter was between Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Stephen Harper—the former saying, in essence: “Hey, what about Ontario’s clean energy help?” and the latter answering “Yes, let’s talk.”
This sets up some timely movement to both scale up and formalize federal clean energy assistance for all provinces in some kind of fair framework. More than a billion federal dollars have already been promised to highly-speculative carbon capture and storage projects in a few provinces, so it’s past time that other provinces also received assistance, hopefully for more tried and true projects like creating new jobs in hydro, wind and solar.
During the election we also joined with allies to pose 10 questions to all the parties (you can see the results here). While the Conservatives chose not to answer, their past action on toxics coupled with the answers we did get set up a potentially significant next step for Canada—to get the hormone disrupting chemical BPA out of food and beverage can linings. Japan has already taken action on this, and Canada can build on its leadership in making baby bottles safer by also making our canned food supply safer.
Finally, for an election supposedly fought mainly on economic issues, there was an irresponsible silence on one of the biggest economic issues facing our nation—that we have an emerging and very harmful case of “Dutch Disease.” In this case, the ailment applies not to elm trees, but rather to Canadian manufacturing industries that rely heavily on exports, which means most of them. (“Dutch Disease” is a term coined by The Economist magazine in the 1970s to describe the decline of the manufacturing sector in the Netherlands after a major natural gas discovery.)
As Canada dramatically ramps up tar sands production, our dollar has become a petro-currency that rises and falls with the price of oil. Because oil is now expensive, our dollar is also trading consistently above parity, where it will increasingly stay as oil becomes scarcer. This means that while oil companies rake in bigger and bigger profits, our manufacturers find it harder and harder to turn a profit and shed jobs. Dutch Disease has a much bigger impact than any possible federal stimulus program, yet our federal politicians aren’t talking to voters about it.
As a new House gets back to business, it’s time for Parliament to recommit to environmental protection and the furthering of human health and quality of life with which it goes hand in hand. Other countries are wondering where the Canada that led on issues like ozone depletion has gone. Instead, our diplomats are actively working to undermine progress on climate change in countries that are considering whether to adopt new policies requiring fuels to be greener. The reason? Because these would threaten unfettered and increasing trade in carbon-heavy tar sands oil. In other words, not content to screw things up domestically, Canada is now exporting its nasty environmental ideas around the planet. This is not what the majority of Canadians want. And any intelligent political party ignores the green tinge and clear volatility of the current electorate at its peril.
Rick Smith is executive director of Environmental Defence (www.EnvironmentalDefence.ca) and co-author of the bestselling book Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health. The views expressed here are his own.