Science Matters by David Suzuki
Science Matters is published weekly in newspapers across Canada.
Canada's big lie
June 3, 2005
Feeling smugly superior of Americans may be a great Canadian pastime, but lately it seems that we have less and less to crow about.
One of Canada's greatest claims to fame has been that we are good environmental stewards. Indeed, polls show that Canadians greatly value our tremendous natural heritage and that we very much want to conserve it. Unfortunately, our behaviour is not lining up with our values.
Results of a five-year study by the NAFTA-created Commission for Environmental Co-operation reveal that release of harmful pollutants into the environment increased by five per cent in Canada between 1998 and 2002. At the same time, they decreased by 14 per cent in the U.S.. During the same period, release of air pollutants in Canada increased by eight per cent. In the U.S., it decreased by 21 per cent.
What's going on here? Are our southern neighbours really going green?
Not really. In fact, according to many environmental indicators, the United States is still the world's biggest polluter. However, some states in the U.S. are indeed working to clean up their acts. They have seen the ecological and economic benefits of having strong environmental standards, so they're taking action. Meanwhile, Canada has been sitting back on our heels and letting our reputation speak for itself.
As a result of our inaction, Canada's environmental health has suffered and we've lost out on many economic opportunities. Rather than pursue innovative, new business strategies, we've stayed the course with business-as-usual plans - even while the world around us has been changing. In part, we can blame the big industrial polluters who make a powerful lobbying force in Ottawa. In part, we can blame our politicians for listening to them. And in part we can blame ourselves for not pressuring our leaders to really move Canada's economy into the 21st century.
But rather than pointing fingers, we'd be better off just looking ahead - finding examples of best practices and then emulating and improving on them. Sweden, for example, is one country that has improved its environmental performance and at the same time improved its economic performance. In fact, as Swedish Ambassador Lennart Alvin pointed out recently in the Globe and Mail, Sweden manages to better Canada in most environmental rankings, such as greenhouse gas emissions, while also bettering Canada economically. Last fall, for example, the World Economic Forum compared industrialized countries in terms of economic competitiveness and ranked Sweden third, Canada 15th.
Mr. Alvin explains that Sweden has reached this enviable position through a number of strategies, including energy efficiency and cutting waste. It also began a program of "green tax shift," which decreased taxes on things like payroll - thereby leaving more money for citizens and businesses - while increasing taxes on things like fossil fuels and energy consumption. That encourages conservation, which decreases pollution and reduces the need for high-priced fossil fuels.
Canada's government has talked a good game about sustainability, but has been slow off the mark - until recently. Over the past few months, the federal government has produced a budget that includes some truly innovative measures, like a new deal for cities to help them become healthier and more sustainable. Our government has also released its long-awaited climate change plan. The plan, while weaker than those in leading countries, is a good starting point to begin reducing pollution and improving our competitiveness.
We have a long way to go, but we aren't operating in the dark. Countries like Sweden can serve as a model and inspire us to do better. Even if we didn't value our natural heritage, becoming better environmental stewards makes sense from an economic perspective. That's something our neighbours to the south are starting to notice too - and surely we can't let them beat us at our own game.