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Image via Flickr by Andre (aka Cx15)

In an ideal world, given Canada’s vast size, natural bounty and historic presence on the international stage, sustainability should be intimately paired with Canada, as the Belgians are with chocolate or the Finns with a piping hot sauna.

Yet, the Canadian image overseas, especially in Europe, is the environmental laggard, a climate fossil where the prevailing symbol of a clubbed seal has been replaced by a ruinous oil sands operation.

The reality, of course, is much more complex.

But as long as Canada lacks an integrated national strategy to leverage our abundant natural capital, we will continue to be vulnerable to the profit-oriented trends that make us fritter this privilege, testing our ecosystems’ tolerance and the bonds of national unity, further degrading our image.

With the right choices and a change in political mindset, Canada can legitimately stamp itself with an enduring brand—call it the “Maple Leaf Seal of Approval”—and in the process, enhance both the state of the planet and its own reputation over the long run.

Tar sands of time

The core problem is a prioritization of short-term benefits at the expense of long-term opportunities. This is ironically manifested in an area where planning takes decades—the oil sands.

Oil sands are projected to take up an increasing share of Canada’s carbon emissions, threatening our country’s ability to meet its goal of reducing emissions by 15 per cent by 2020. In response to criticism, the federal and Alberta governments have reacted defensively, attempting to explain their environmental record rather than change it, touting the product as an “ethical” option compared with oil sourced from more suspect regions. This is a multipartisan phenomenon. When the National Geographic ran a damning article and photoessay on the ecological impact of Alberta oil sands operations in March 2009, Liberal Party of Canada leader Michael Ignatieff was one of the first to cry foul.

In terms of policy, Canada and Alberta have gone “all in” on carbon capture, sequestration (CCS) and storage, providing over $1 billion in subsidies or commitments while letting support for other green projects, notably wind energy, lapse.

It is, in effect, another bet on the oil sands, and on coal-fired power in Western Canada.

In addition to those risky bets, lack of liability for CCS, and a carbon tax versus a cap and trade system must be considered.

Carbonated taxes and rewards

The Conservatives are advocating for lower corporate taxes. The Liberals are opposed, saying they want to spend the surplus funds (if, indeed, stopping the tax cuts yields more revenue) on needed social programs. A showdown over the budget, and a possible election, could result.

When it comes to sustainability, these are important, but ultimately limited, debates. If Canada wants the Maple Leaf Seal of Approval, it needs to re-orient the conversation towards rewarding positive outcomes.

On tax, the pro-sustainability approach would re-jig our corporate tax regime altogether. Those companies that lower their carbon emissions as a proportion of revenues the most over a single or multi-year period would get an extra reduction in their corporate taxes.

This could be done in every industry, which allows for special care in extractive industries, which have royalties and rebates layered over the existing corporate tax regime.

All of these proposals, incidentally, would have the effect of putting an implied tax or price on carbon—something that a large proportion of economists agree is necessary to tackle climate change. But imposing a tax right away was rejected at the polls in October 2008, after being proposed by then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, and pure subsidy approaches are also politically divisive.

New systems that focus on rewarding good behaviour are more politically attainable, especially when the financial and environmental long-term bottom lines are so intertwined.

Breath of fresh energy

If we had a long-term vision in mind for Canadian sustainability, particularly the integrity of the Canadian airshed, we might proceed differently.

For example, there has been little coordinated investment in a visionary project that would bring energy prosperity to the entire country: a national electricity grid. The $1 billion currently on the table for CCS could instead be used to attract those utilities and provinces that take the first steps in building it.

The money could alternatively be used to create an international competition on developing Canada’s considerable geothermal electricity potential. Geothermal is perhaps the one renewable energy source in which Canada has a demonstrable competitive advantage in terms of supply, and we could develop a similar technological advantage.

That kind of lateral, grand thinking will likely be required to supply the demands for electric car infrastructure in both Canada and the U.S., an undertaking that would have the ultimate effect of displacing some oil-sands-source-fuel.

These two initiatives would demonstrate internationally that Canada was serious about sustainability, invite more foreign investment into our country, bring meaningful reductions in carbon emissions, and help unify Canada around sustainability.

At home and abroad, fiscal policy changes could redefine the Canadian approach to sustainability, and help Canada get the Maple Leaf Seal of Approval. But not everyone gets excited about taxes.

Successes unrecognized

Two other efforts, already underway but not yet appearing in climate change politics, can help Canada brand itself around sustainability. The problem is politicians don’t seem to recognize them for their international cachet, or embrace them as truly Canadian.

The first is one of the great Canadian environmental successes of the last generation, the 2010 Boreal Forest Agreement, brokered between 21 forestry companies and 9 environmental non-governmental organizations.

In any other country, the protection of 72 million hectares of forestland—the size of Germany and France combined—in an effort to preserve large corridors for use by the endangered woodland caribou would be a signature political event.

In Canada, government and its politicians were relatively absent in promoting the agreement, and as a result, Canadians missed out on the deal’s significance.

The Boreal Forest Agreement effectively creates of one of the planet’s great carbon sinks (as long as all of the forests are protected over the long-term—some are only protected for an initial three-year period). It should be a core part of Canada’s international branding. But even at home, many Canadians still haven’t heard about it.

The second effort comes packaged in consumer plastics. Bisphenol-A was a substance that most people in the developed world dealt with every day in water bottles. After research showed that the substance

could be toxic, especially in young children, Canadian activists and journalists jumped on the issue. In September 2010, Canada was the first country to declare bisphenol-a a toxic substance.

Maple leaves not plastic trees

Trees, plastic, water, and wildlife: these are not esoteric, hard-to-understand ideas. They are not matters of tax policy, but concrete things in our daily lives. They relate to the safety of our children and to the icons on our icons. And on two major issues that touch on things that people everywhere value, Canadians are leading by example, showing that the more sustainable solution is the better one.

This sense of stewardship—as large as Western Europe or as small as a baby’s bottle— could be integral to the Maple Leaf Seal of Approval.

But Canadian leaders have failed to communicate.

At the micro and the macro-levels, the conditions to create an internationally recognized brand of Canada as a sustainability champion, exist.

It’s time to summon the political will to get there.

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