“Moving forward on the environment”

December 15, 2006

It seems that the environment has finally made it to the top of the political agenda – at least for the federal opposition parties. The new Liberal leader Stephane Dion joins the NDP’s Jack Layton and Elizabeth May of the Greens as a party leader with a history of engagement in environmental issues. Making bold statements about the environment has become good politics and this will hopefully lead to comprehensive federal action on the environment.

Political rhetoric appears to be catching up to citizens’ concerns. Recent polls indicate that Canadians place dealing with the environment right at the top of their list of priorities along side health care, well ahead of the Harper government’s priority of tax cuts. I think most Canadians are willing to make adjustments in their lives if they have access to viable and affordable environmentally friendly alternatives.

But talking about the need to develop a sustainable economy is the easy part. The real challenge is how to re-orient an economy that is focused on short-term profits and reliant upon depletion of natural resources and environmental pollution. For the most part those steering the Canadian economy have shown little inclination to making the shift.

Many corporate leaders remain focused on short-term profitability rather than long-term sustainability. Do the political leaders have what it takes to ensure that the private sector moves to a bottom line that incorporates environmental sustainability? The federal Liberals know first hand the challenges of moving beyond rhetoric and good intentions. Rather than decreasing, greenhouse gas emissions have actually increased dramatically since the Liberals signed on to the Kyoto Accord.

The Conservatives, while making claims about the importance of the environment, have exacerbated the situation. They have cut the few programs that the Liberals did initiate. On climate change, their plan is for more industry consultations and they are not planning significant regulations for industry for decades. At the same time they appear intent on abandoning the Kyoto Accord and are undermining international attempts to address climate change.

Two successive governments faced with environmental crisis, and a public who want action, have been unwilling or unable to move forward. This has to be a big concern as we face one of the biggest public policy issues in recent history.

It is not for lack of policy options or technologies that we haven’t moved forward. Governments have plenty of tools at their disposal, including regulations, tax incentives, supporting research and innovation etc. So why has it been so difficult to make our economy more sustainable?

Part of the problem is that our economy does not account for the environmental and social costs of production, consumption and disposal of goods. The current economic boom underscores a particular challenge Canada faces – our economy is increasingly reliant upon the depletion and export of renewable and non-renewable resources, with little value added. The development of Alberta’s tar sands with the associated huge environmental costs is a clear example of governments and corporate Canada not taking the environmental agenda seriously.

The Canadian government needs a long-term sustainable resource development strategy in, for example, forestry, fisheries and energy. We need to move beyond the focus on rapid intensive depletion of resources that distorts communities and the environment.

While the current economy is unsustainable, it is very profitable for some. Profits have been skyrocketing and have hit record levels as a portion of the overall economy. And herein lies another problem: those with the most political clout – large corporations and their investors – have been benefiting the most from the current unsustainable economic activity. How to turn this around is a particularly vexing political problem for governments, given the close ties commonly found between political and economic elites.

Two decades of governments that have bought into free market fundamentalism have also made the challenge of re-orienting the economy more difficult. Canadian governments have overseen an increasing re-alignment of public policy, from being a means through which to promote the public interest to a means of promoting corporate profitability.

Deregulation of the economy and the privatization of government services, while perhaps good for short-term profitability, have undermined governments’ capacity to develop, implement and monitor regulations that protect the environment, workers and communities. Tax cuts which may also contribute to profits are reducing the resources available to government to promote and support the transition to a sustainable economy.

Business lobby groups and some politicians, rather than supporting an increase in the capacity of governments to manage the economy to meet environmental and social objectives, have spent the past two decades attacking and undermining the legitimacy of democratic governments to actively promote and implement progressive pubic policy.

Canadians want action on the environment. Is corporate Canada up to the task? Maybe, maybe not, but in the end they shouldn’t have a choice. Where businesses and industries are not willing or able to move forward on their own, governments need to use the tools at their disposal to ensure sectors meet social and environmental objectives. This includes phasing out industries that are environmentally unsustainable and supporting workers and communities in this transition. Other options include establishing public enterprises in strategic sectors such as the development, production, and distribution of energy and new technologies.

The real challenge will be to force politicians to follow through on developing a socially just, sustainable economy, and this pressure will have to come from citizens and social and environmental movements.

John Jacobs is director of the Nova Scotia office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (www.policyalternatives.ca), an independent public policy research institute.