February 2, 2010: Hill Times column, reprint

The tenth anniversary of a great idea: the Green Budget Coalition

As the Coalition enters its second decade, the winds of change are ushering in a promising new era for the economy and the environment

In November the Green Budget Coalition (GBC) released its recommendations for federal budget 2010, ten years after the Coalition’s founding in 1999. I have fond memories of the GBC, having served as program manager for a couple of years earlier in the decade.

The GBC – comprising 21 of Canada’s leading environmental and conservation organisations - has, for me, always represented the true embodiment of a win-win situation. In the first instance, the impetus for the creation of the GBC was largely to meet the needs of its clientele - mainly the Department of Finance and to a lesser extent the Finance Committee as well as the departments that feed their ideas and requests into the central agency.

In the late 1990’s the environmental community heard from the federal government that its budget proposals were, to put it charitably, all over the map. There was a scattershot quality to the many and varied budget requests on which a dozen or more environmental organizations were lobbying the government. At best the many proposals were merely uncoordinated, at worst they were sometimes at cross purposes with each other.

On this, as on many other fronts, the environmental community got its collective act together and the members joined to produce a consistent, prioritised compilation of environmental budget proposals. Since then, federal politicians and bureaucrats have repeatedly expressed gratitude for the orderly manner in which the environmental community presents its budget priorities.

The self-imposed policy discipline that accompanied meeting the government’s request has been a blessing for the environmental community as well. The community has found it much easier to focus its attention and scarce resources on a handful of well crafted budget proposals than to advocate with a laundry list of spending requests in hand.

Over the years the GBC has been a catalyst for promoting an ever greater level of detail and sophistication in the budget proposals that the environmental community makes - to the point where GBC proposals today sometimes outshine those of much deeper pocketed interests. A case in point is the Drive Green vehicle feebate proposal featured in the Coalition’s 2006 budget recommendations. By undertaking a full economic modeling analysis of the Drive Green climate change proposal, the Coalition was able to provide Finance Canada with the projected economic and environmental impacts of this budget recommendation over the course of the next 15 years.

The Coalition has three priority recommendations for budget 2010, each of which delivers important environmental protections in return for a relatively modest expenditure.

1. Protecting Ecosystems and Biodiversity

2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity, when Canada must report on its progress on the commitments it made under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. There is enormous potential in this regard to make progress on completing the national parks system, building on recent highly laudable decisions by the government to permanently protect a massive expansion of the Nahanni National Park Reserve and to protect Saoyú and Æehdacho National Historic Site of Canada.

The GBC is recommending funding a national ecosystem based adaptation strategy including the creation and enhanced protection of terrestrial and marine protected areas and incentives for protecting and restoring greenhouse gas reservoirs in natural forests and wetlands.

2. Investing in Canada’s Freshwater Future

Secondly, the GBC is encouraging the government to make further progress in delivering its promised federal water strategy, starting in the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence basin, with priority to investments in updating water and wastewater infrastructure, integrating conservation measures, and ensuring the clean up and de-listing of existing Great Lakes Areas of Concern and the St. Lawrence “Zones d’intervention prioritaire” in Québec.

Updating and fixing water pipes may not be sexy, but it is a smart use of taxpayers’ money, given that water leakage can reach 50 per cent in some areas, and that the electricity used to pump that water can represent nearly 50 per cent of municipal electricity consumption.

3. Renewable Energy: Attracting Investment, Creating Jobs

2010 is also a prime time for the government to increase its support for renewable power, to enable Canada to meet its target of 90 per cent non-emitting electricity by 2020.

The GBC is emphasizing the importance of replacing the sun-setting ecoENERGY for Renewable Power program with a capital grant program, including a specific set-aside for northern and remote communities. It also recommends establishing “Green Energy Bonds” to ease access to capital and unlocking Canada’s geothermal potential by developing a national geothermal data and classification system.

As the Coalition enters its second decade, the winds of change are ushering in a promising new era for the economy and the environment. Historically the GBC has gone to government “cap in hand” asking for money for the environment. This has left many legislators with the false impression that the environment is an “expense” - when in fact it is the greatest “asset” Canada has. Fortunately, this framing is beginning to change. The GBC and other organizations, such as Sustainable Prosperity, are helping to shape a new approach to eco-economics; steering away from asking government to “pay” for environmental protection and, instead, highlighting that a healthy environment is the basis for a sustainable economy. This emerging approach moves beyond the annual budget cycle and instead implements long-term structural changes that will help bring the economy into line with the environment.

Pierre Sadik is the manager of government affairs of the David Suzuki Foundation. The opinions expressed are his own.