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What Kind of Example Is Canada Setting?

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderIs any nation on Earth taking seriously the need for a true-cost economy, where we live sustainably in a steady state? I have been working with Randy Hayes, founder of the Rainforest Action Network and executive director of Foundation Earth, on a report card to determine if Canada might be such a nation. The report card reveals whether Canada is setting the example for how to run a country sustainably in the 21st century, or following the path of maximal exploitation of natural resources (the path followed by most nations and urged by the World Bank, IMF, WTO, and growth-obsessed economists).

We chose to examine Canada in part because of its history of compassion and global concern. Canada also has abundant natural ecosystems, lots of land and fresh water, and a relatively small population. This combination of assets puts Canadians in a better position than most to set policies for achieving a sustainable economy.

The report card, scheduled for release in June by Foundation Earth, grades the administration of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, as well as the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, on key actions and policies in economics, ecology, and equity. It will present grades in sixteen categories.

Canada has the potential to achieve high marks across all categories (in fact, the report card highlights initiatives around the world that show what can be done to earn high grades). But much to our chagrin, we found that instead of taking actions to enhance the health of people and the planet, Canada has been reverting to the crass and outdated ways of cowboy economics: “exploit now, answer questions later.” The Harper administration receives failing grades in most of the sixteen categories, while Alberta and British Columbia do only slightly better. Although Vancouver, Toronto, and other locales have undertaken a number of sustainable economic initiatives, the Harper administration is promoting overly exploitative projects in most areas.

Given the collapse of leadership in the U.S. on innovative ecological and economic policy, Canada could have emerged as a worldwide leader on the shift to clean energy. The nation could have rejected mega-extraction projects that pollute the air and water and damage or destroy forests, grasslands, rivers, lakes, mountains, and valleys.

Instead, Canada is following the U.S.’s lead and dropping the ball. For example, Harper could have extended British Columbia’s carbon tax law of 2008 to the rest of the country. Sweden adopted a carbon tax in 1991 with good results. Harper could have pushed for extensive solar energy in Alberta and Saskatchewan where cities such as Edmonton, Calgary, and Regina have equal or better solar potential than Rome, Italy. Germany and Denmark have shown that northern nations can lead the way on solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources.

To get a sense of the grades we’re compiling in the report card, here’s a rundown of four categories:

1. Climate Disruption and Pollution

On climate policies, Canada is ranked 58th out of 61 nations that the European Climate Action Network analyzed. Only Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Kazakhstan ranked worse. This woeful ranking stems from projects like the Enbridge pipeline. Harper has pushed for this pipeline project that would carry tar sands oil across British Columbia to the port of Kitimat where supertankers would attempt to navigate difficult channels (and jeopardize the province’s magnificent northern coastline).

By removing protections from 99% of Canada’s natural water bodies, Harper has left 30,000 lakes and rivers vulnerable to corporate pollution. The Prime Minister has also sought to weaken water pollution standards and given permission to use more lakes as dumpsites.

2. Women’s Rights

When it comes to empowerment of women, Canada under Harper has fallen three places in the Global Gender Gap Index and now ranks 21st. Harper cut funding for the Status of Women department by 38% and closed twelve of its sixteen regional offices.

3. Rights of Indigenous People

In January 2006, Harper cancelled the Kelowna Accord, a historic agreement to clean up pollution that is poisoning First Nation people. The Harper government, along with some provincial governments, has systematically failed to respect indigenous rights and has cheered energy projects that severely impact the health of native people, their lands, and their waters.

4. Science-Based Decision Making

Reminiscent of an Orwellian state, Harper’s administration has eliminated scientific programs and refused to regard scientific findings on toxic contamination and the health of forests, fisheries, and oceans. Harper has led an outright assault on environmental groups, allocating millions to the charitable tax agency harassing these organizations.

Key institutions carrying out scientific work on the health of the Earth have been gutted and even shuttered, including the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory in the High Arctic, the Experimental Lakes Area (an extraordinary 58-lake research venue in western Ontario), the national program on contaminants in marine mammals, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

All scientific research in the National Parks has been terminated, and Environment Canada has cancelled its work on climate adaptation by laying off all eighteen scientists in the program. Top experts on ocean pollutants, marine mammals, contaminants in the St. Lawrence River, toxic flame retardants, and endocrine disruptors in fish have been dismissed.

The report card on Canada under the Harper administration will inform people of these disgraceful changes. Canada is moving farther and farther from a sustainable economy and is now a record-setting polluter where the gap between rich and poor is widening; where women, First Nations, and conservationists are under major attack; and where energy and mining companies are given a blank check to pillage the nation and the planet.

Many have tried to influence Harper to do what’s best for the environment and the economy over the long run. If the saying is true that, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink,” then maybe it’s time to put Harper out to political pasture. Although with the policies he’s been supporting, he might have a tough time finding drinkable water in that pasture.

Finding Real Economic Leadership in the Wake of Rio+20

by Brent Blackwelder

Twenty years after the seminal “Earth Summit” on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil once again has hosted a “fate-of-the-earth” meeting (Rio+20) focused on the themes of a green economy and institutional change.  In the aftermath of the 1992 meeting, too many nations, including the United States in particular, failed to reverse the downward trend in planetary ecosystem health. Today, with a global population of 7 billion consuming resources beyond the ability of the earth to replenish itself, we’d better hope there’s a better attempt at the transition to a sustainable economy after this meeting.

Change must begin with the structure of the economy because a nation’s economic policy is also its social and environmental policy. National economies all over the world are failing — failing to provide economic stability, failing to secure resources for future generations, failing to protect ecosystems and non-human species, and failing to achieve social justice.

In anticipation of the Rio+20 summit, Foundation Earth published a report called “The Economic Rethink: Who Does It Well?.” It challenges leaders to adopt big changes and gives them examples to follow from a variety of nations.  In preparing the report, Randy Hayes, founder of the Rainforest Action Network, and I reviewed over a dozen scorecards that grade nations on their performance — some focus on corruption, others on empowerment of women, still others on environmental protection.

In our 16-category analysis, Brazil, the host of the Rio+20 meeting, receives a failing grade, missing the boat in 13 categories of action toward a sustainable economy. Brazil’s political leadership is intending to make the nation a global powerhouse in agricultural exports, an intention that would mean sacrificing the world’s greatest tropical rainforest, the Amazon, to accommodate industrial plantations for food and biofuel exports.

But the report goes beyond the question of accountability for Brazil. It highlights significant positive steps that some nations are taking to shift to a new economy. In most of the 16 categories, at least a few nations are taking leadership roles. The twin goals of an environmentally restored earth and a socially just civilization are not part of a utopian fantasy: people have adopted inspiring policies and taken forward-looking actions in real places around the globe. The challenge is to make sure that the following examples become the rule rather than the exception:

  • Bhutan is leading the way in development of new indicators of progress. The “gross national happiness” measures deeper values that cannot be captured by GDP.
  • The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with deforested Haiti, is demonstrating leadership forest restoration. Since 2003, forest cover in the Dominican Republic has increased from 32% to almost 40%.
  • In the energy sector, several leaders are stepping forward. Sweden, Costa Rica, and British Columbia (Canada) have instituted carbon taxes to include the ecological cost of energy use in its price. And Germany has blazed a clean energy trail with outstanding results in solar and wind power.
  • Cuba is an innovator in organic community agriculture. Havana grows 50% of its fresh produce within the city limits.
  • In a world awash with financial scandals and offshore tax havens, New Zealand has become the “least corrupt nation” because of its effective legal framework, fiscal transparency, and accountability.
  • Bolivia and Ecuador have put a rights-of-nature provision in their legal codes as have several cities and towns in the United States.
  • Iceland, number one on the Global Gender Gap rankings, is a nation of empowered women. Women in the Land of Fire and Ice hold the majority of jobs in university education and have nearly equal representation in parliament.
  • In contrast to Brazil’s determination to fill the Amazon with massive dams, the United States has led the world in one category: restoration and protection of rivers. Over 1,000 dams have now been removed in the U.S. to restore fisheries and water quality. Furthermore, more than 250 rivers have been safeguarded in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
  • In the Netherlands, “repair cafes” are beginning to address the problem of over-consumption. Such cafes encourage reuse of broken and weathered possessions, providing free repair services.

These examples of leadership are well worth celebrating, but many challenges remain along the path to a sustainable economy. The biggest challenge is that no nation adequately addresses carrying capacity, planetary limits to growth, or sustainable economic scale. All nations must overcome this challenge to ensure a healthy planet and flourishing civilization for future generations.

It remains to be seen what progress will flow out of the Rio+20 meeting, but examples of real leadership in “The Economic Rethink” offer hope that we can dispose of the “disposable economy.”   There’s no longer room for an economy that treats the earth like it’s the site of a liquidation sale.