Speeches | Bill C-474, Federal Sustainable Development Act

18 June 2008

Debates of the Senate (Hansard)
2nd Session, 39th Parliament
Volume 144, Issue 72
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hon. Grant Mitchell moved second reading of Bill C-474, An Act to require the development and implementation of a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy and the development of goals and targets with respect to sustainable development in Canada, and to make consequential amendments to another Act.

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Hon. Grant Mitchell:
I do want to sincerely thank the government for its support of this bill. I understand the legislation was supported wholeheartedly in the House of Commons and I understand that support is sustained in the Senate. I do think this is a clear example of the kind of cooperation and non-partisan work that can be done on an issue that is as important as environmental reform and initiative. This bill is a powerful step in creating the kind of environmental policy that this government and the Canadian people need for now and the future to provide leadership in Canada and around the world on this incredibly important issue.

There is a history to this bill that I will outline to provide a context for honourable senators. In 1995, the then Liberal government responded to obvious demands for ever stronger environmental policy by establishing a process by which federal government departments were expected and required to develop sustainable development strategies. They were to report every three years on their strategies and their progress. That was done. It was done three times under the Liberal government and it became very clear that this was being treated, to some extent, as little more than a bureaucratic nuisance. Very little came out of this process.

The fourth report occurred under the then new Conservative government.

Senator Mercer: It is much older now.

Senator Mitchell: Not surprisingly, the result was the same. To her credit, then Minister Ambrose outlined her concern that these reports were vague, did not accomplish much and needed improvement. Therefore, I believe she initiated a process under which the Department of Environment would initiate, and did initiate, a study and review of the sustainable development strategy process.

Senator Mercer: Was she rewarded for that?

Senator Mitchell: I do not know whether she was rewarded for that.

To some extent, that was a step in the right direction. However, the argument can be made that the Department of Environment had the responsibility for this process in the first place, and had supervised four consecutive reporting stages by other departments that were simply inadequate and never got any better.

It was in that context that John Godfrey developed this bill — the sustainable development strategy act — that will require a number of things. First, the government will be required to develop an overall sustainable development strategy for the government as a whole. We have waited too long for that. Part of that process will be that each department will be required specifically to develop a sustainable development strategy for their department that will be consistent with that overall strategy.

There will be some accountability processes. The Commissioner of the Environment, who has been reviewing these documents and reports, will be similarly charged to sustain that responsibility. As well, a support mechanism to the cabinet committee of the environment has been contemplated by this bill so that there is the backup, support and kind of research required to handle this properly. That underlines the need to have strategy developed and coordinated at the most senior levels, such as cabinet, because it must be driven at that level. This initiative is too important to be left anywhere else.

This act also calls for a monitoring process that includes public reporting, so the public can play a role in holding government accountable for the sustainable development strategy and for progress that is or is not being made in the effort to achieve the goals of that strategy.

This bill is based upon a number of principles. Three key principles recognized the work of an organization called The Natural Step, which is a very credible environmental organization formed in Sweden. It is not unreasonable that we should look around the world for insight and inspiration for a bill of this nature. The environment, of course, is global. This bill is consistent with the values I believe that Canadians hold for their environment.

The Government of Canada accepts the basic principle that, in a sustainable society, nature must not be subject to the systematic increase of, first, concentrations of substances extracted from the earth's crust; second, concentrations of substances produced by society; and, third, its degradation by physical means.

The act also establishes goals for Canada with respect to sustainable development; they are critical goals and elements in building a strategy for the medium, long and short term. Canada should become a leader in a number of areas, such as living in a sustainable manner and protecting the environment and modifying production and consumption patterns to mimic nature's closed-loop cycles, thus dramatically reducing waste and pollution.

Among these goals, it continues to say that Canada should move to the forefront of the global clean energy revolution. Additionally, Canada should become globally renowned for its leadership in conserving, protecting and restoring the natural beauty of the nation and the health and diversity of its ecosystems, parks and wilderness areas. These are laudable and inspirational goals and they are the kind of principle-end goals that can inspire not only governments and their departments but also inspire the people of Canada to achieve what needs to be achieved in this critical and important area of public policy.

In a nutshell, that is what the act does. It is very laudable. I congratulate John Godfrey for his initiative in bringing this in. I congratulate the House of Commons and the Senate for embracing this bill. However, it is only a necessary condition for doing what we have to do for the environment; it is not a sufficient condition. We need to understand that this development strategy is only the basis upon which we can do what we have to do for the environment, and it can never be developed, implemented and executed without leadership.

My concern is that we have been lacking leadership on the environmental front. I am reminded of the nature of leadership. I believe in my heart of hearts — and there is so much evidence of this — that great leaders seek great challenges. In fact, great leaders cannot be defined as great leaders unless they confront and overcome a great challenge. An obvious example is Winston Churchill. Churchill would have been a footnote in history but for the Second World War, which he encountered at the age of 65. He rose to the challenge to assist the world, if not lead the world, in winning.

Instead of having profoundly strong leadership, I believe that we have had a leadership that has been inclined to be, at least, ambivalent about climate change, for example. It has had an "approach avoidance" kind of reaction to doing what needs to be done. We have seen arguments that I think miss; they have to be addressed and confronted in a proper sustainable development strategy.

The first and most pervasive myth is that the environment and the economy are mutually exclusive; somehow, we cannot walk and chew gum at the same time. It is a myth. Somehow, in the ether, this statement has been made over and over again: Having a strong, effective environmental policy will somehow hurt an economy. It has become almost subsumed into our culture that it is true.

Yet, I do not ever think I have seen an example in that debate from that side that shows where strong environmental policy or strong environmental business initiative has ever hurt an economy or ever hurt a business. It is quite the contrary: Strong environmental policy and strong environmental business initiative almost invariably stimulates an economy and a business.

I can give all kinds of examples where the reverse is true: Bad environmental policy and poor environmental business initiative can destroy economies and businesses. There are many examples of where that has been the case.

How is it that we have accepted this idea in society, at some level, that there is a trade-off between the environment and the economy? It simply is not true. We need a paradigm shift whereby we begin to look at the economy and the environment in a fundamentally different way.

It is also part of this myth that it is very expensive. How many times have we seen companies argue over and again against an environmental policy — against launching itself, for example, on something that would confront climate change — when they always argue the most expensive possible cost to do that? When they get down to it and they are forced to do it, we found it is usually done about 10 times faster at about 10 per cent of the cost, and there usually is economic benefit to boot.

The acid rain recession — that was the argument used to deal with acid rain. You know what? It never happened. Lee Iacocca, who then worked for Ford, said that the catalytic converter would cause whole industries to collapse; whole towns will fall and 800,000 jobs would be lost; it never happened.

We had to deal with CFCs on an international scale. DuPont said it would cost $135 billion and whole towns would be destroyed; it never happened. It was quite the contrary in each and every one of those examples.

My point is: We do not have to be victims or slaves to this myth that the economy will be hurt by constructive environmental policy. It is quite the contrary. I would argue that, if you want to hurt this economy, we just need to keep doing what we are doing and we will hurt our economy.

The United States has passed a bill that forbids government agencies — the Army — to buy fuel that has been the product of or derived from oil that produces in its production more greenhouse gas than conventional oil. That is oil sands oil, which becomes an affront to the Canadian economy. It is something we will see more and more frequently.

I should also say there is a great deal of evidence where industries have stepped up and have already more than achieved benchmarks set out in the Kyoto Protocol. The Canadian Forestry Association has dropped its membership's carbon footprint by 44 per cent of 1990 levels. Kyoto only has to be 6 per cent of 1990 levels. That is seven times 1990 levels. They have already done it.

The Canadian Chemical Producers Association has dropped its carbon footprint by 66 per cent of 1990 levels. That is nine times Kyoto. The Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters membership has dropped its carbon footprint by 7.5 per cent compared to the 6 per cent that it had to do under the Kyoto Accord. It has established that its membership's efficiency has increased by 50 per cent. There is example after example about how much more achievable these goals and objectives are than we are led to believe.

A second myth is that it is way too expensive to confront climate change or the Kyoto Protocol. I am being moderate when I say this: Conservatives will often argue, "Let the market decide." I agree. Let us let the market decide.

Do you know that in Alberta today, aggregators are aggregating and selling to firms in Alberta that have to meet Premier Stelmach's caps? Carbon credits that are a real reduction are being bought from farmers for $6 a tonne. They are insured by Lloyd's of London. They are third-party authorized and verified. They are $6 a tonne. The Kyoto Protocol requires us to reduce our carbon footprint in Canada by 250 million tonnes a year — 2008-12. At $6 a tonne, that is $1.5 billion a year. The GST cut was $12 billion a year.

I am not saying we should just do it with credits. However, I will say we should not rule out credits because they are real and they represent real reductions. They represent investments in small Canadian business, if done properly, in big Canadian business and in farmers. I do not know a farmer in Canada that has too much money. They can use that money; it is real money to them, is a real investment and it would encourage initiative that would allow us to meet Kyoto.

With that said, it puts a price to it. It demonstrates there is a lot of low-hanging fruit. It underlines that it is much easier to get to Kyoto and deal with climate change than people have been led to believe. I think we have to deal with it.

Even if you went to the European market, where it is more expensive — $20 a tonne — you will still arrive at Kyoto at $20 a tonne for $5 billion a year. That is if you only bought credits. I am not saying you should, but I am answering the Conservative maxim that we should let the market decide. Let us go and see how the market priced it because it is possible to do it.

We need to have a different vision of how things can be done.

We need to stop fighting groups like Ontario and Quebec who want to do something. This is a classic place where the federal government could step in to encourage, nurture and partner to make that possibility happen. We should not limit leadership when we see it. We should inspire leadership, making more of it and building on that which is undertaken, perhaps, almost spontaneously. The federal government could do that. It is in a position to provide world-class leadership.

I want to talk about the green shift. Again, this requires another paradigm. It is interesting that, at least to this point, the Conservative government is considering a cap-and-trade system. I applaud them for that. I do not believe their caps are sufficient, nor have they overcome this ambivalence sufficiently to provide the leadership.

When we compare the cap-and-trade system to a green shift, two fundamental differences need to be kept in mind. With a green shift, prices will probably increase to consumers. However, there will be a pool of funds to help the consumer offset those price increases. In a cap-and-trade system, does anyone here believe that big corporations will not pass down those expenses to consumers to meet their cap? Of course they will, but there will not be a pool of funds to offset the price increases.

What is interesting to me is that a Conservative government, which does not like regulation and government intervention — I am sympathetic to that — when confronted with the choice between a green shift and a cap-and-trade system, chooses the cap-and-trade system. It is the most interventionist option. It requires huge amounts of regulation and will end up having government workers making decisions about how penalties raised within that system will be invested to reduce carbon. It seems to be a great contradiction to the Conservative philosophy that the cap-and-trade system would be their default choice.

With a green shift, where they price carbon directly, they begin to open up the market forces. They need to make an infinite number of decisions to make it work and to achieve the objective of bringing carbon footprints down to manageable levels.

We should not be too quick to dismiss that option. I hope the debate is not mired in misconceptions, mistruths and misdirection, and that this government is able to understand there is much to be gained by it. Perhaps they could embrace it rather than dismiss it and diminish it.

We have a remarkable initiative. It has all-party support. That may be, in and of itself, historic in this time of environmental policy development. It is the basis for leadership of historic proportions. It provides the leader who wants to do it with, perhaps, a place in history. It can provide Canada with a place to be leaders in the world and it gives us great promise.

This bill is a hopeful one at a time when we need hope about climate change and other environmental initiatives. I thank the Conservatives and all my colleagues for supporting this bill. I hope we can pass it with great dispatch and allow the government to begin working with it.

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