Occasional Articles - 2005. Reprint of op. ed. published in the Globe and Mail, April 7, 2005

Stop playing political games with Kyoto

If there’s one thing that’s clear from the confused debate of the past week, it’s that Kyoto has become a political football. It’s now time for all parties in this minority Parliament to work together if Canada has any hope of meeting its international commitments to reduce greenhouse gases responsible for global climate change.

Scientific evidence of the need to reduce greenhouse gases has never been stronger. Public opinion polls, including in Alberta, support controls for greenhouse gases.

Unfortunately, rather than simply developing tough, enforceable targets now, the federal government has muddied the waters by proposing changes to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), Canada’s most important environmental protection law. The thrust of the CEPA amendments, proposed last week in the budget implementation bill, are to remove all uses of the word ‘toxic’ to define substances whose emissions are regulated through the Act.

Within days of the bill being introduced, eight of Canada’s leading environmental organizations (Canadian Environmental Law Association, David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, Greenpeace, Pembina Institute, Pollution Probe, Great Lakes United and Sierra Legal Defence Fund) issued a statement challenging the need for the amendments to CEPA. Our organizations all believe that the necessary regulatory authority can be found within the Act as it is currently written.

Given the overwhelming body of scientific evidence regarding the long-term harmful effects of greenhouse gases on the environment on which life depends, it is clear that greenhouse gases would meet the definition of toxicity provided in CEPA as it currently exists. Once a substance has been found to meet this definition, and added to the list of toxic substances under the Act, CEPA provides the federal government with extensive powers to prevent or control the substance’s production and release into the environment. These powers provide an adequate basis with which to move forward on the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from industrial sources in Canada.

The amendments to CEPA proposed in the budget legislation constitute major changes to Canada’s national environmental protection law. These significant changes require careful examination. Yet, they have been proposed in the absence of meaningful public or parliamentary consultation, and on the eve of a comprehensive parliamentary review of the provisions and operation of CEPA that is mandated within the Act itself.

Most importantly, these proposed amendments to CEPA are creating an unnecessary distraction from the real debate, namely, the adequacy of the emission reduction targets for industrial sources of greenhouse gases themselves, and ensuring that the regulatory system that is finally established will be effective.

Large industry (including the electricity sector) accounts for approximately 50% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. A regulatory system for these sources needs to incorporate targets and complementary initiatives that amount to total emission reductions in keeping with this 50% share of emissions. Unfortunately, according to recent media reports, the government is contemplating a far smaller amount of mandatory emission reductions by industry. In reality, much tougher targets could be set for industry without economic disruption. Unless Canadian industry is required to do its fair share for Kyoto, the government’s approach will be ineffective.

A regulatory system to control emissions of greenhouse gases from industrial sources, as Canadian governments have successfully done before with other pollutants of concern, would not constitute, as some have suggested, a “carbon tax.” In fact, the development of a regulatory system to control industrial greenhouse gas emissions has been pursued in Canada as an explicit alternative to such a tax.

Nor, as others have implied, does the establishment of a regulatory system for industrial emissions constitute a revival of the National Energy Policy. On the contrary, as was highlighted by research completed by the Pembina Institute earlier this year, federal tax concessions and other subsidies to the oil and gas industry rose by 33% between 1996 and 2002, reaching $1.4 billion per year.

The establishment and implementation of an effective regulatory system to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from industry sources is essential to Canada’s ability to fulfil its obligations under the Kyoto Protocol, which are now international law. With Canada’s Kyoto target less than three years away it is urgent for the federal government to get on with the business of putting such a system in place.

Rick Smith, Environmental Defence
Paul Muldoon, Canadian Environmental Law Association
Mark Winfield and Matthew Bramley, Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development 
Ken Ogilvie, Pollution Probe
Morag Carter, David Suzuki Foundation
Bruce Cox, Greenpeace
Derek Stack, Great Lakes United
Rob Wright, Sierra Legal Defence Fund