Within Limits: Canada's Record on Environmental Protection Is a Patchwork of Weak Laws and Even Weaker Enforcement

Article excerpt

ENVIRONMENTAL law is a relatively new field. Thirty years ago, concepts such as "biological diversity," "ozone depletion," "climate change" and "endocrine disruptors" did not exist. As recently as 1970, Canada had no federal environment department, few laws or regulations governed air and water pollution and maximum fines under Canada's strongest environmental law were $2000. The past three decades have seen a tremendous proliferation and strengthening of international, national, provincial and local environmental laws and policies.

The surge in attention and resources dedicated to protecting the environment has produced a substantial amount of progress in recent decades. Sulphur dioxide emissions declined by almost 50 percent in Eastern Canada. Production and use of ozone-depleting chemicals are down 95 percent. Lead emissions are down 95 percent. Emissions of other air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide, decreased between 10 and 50 percent in recent years.

Water pollution from industrial sources declined, dramatically in some sectors. For example, the discharge of dioxins and furans from pulp and paper mills is down 99 percent. A higher percentage of Canadians is connected to sewage treatment plants, and the quality of sewage treatment is rising.

Forest practices have improved modestly. Quantities of municipal waste have fallen by as much as 50 percent in some provinces, while recycling rates have risen rapidly. The area of Canada's land in parks and protected areas increased by more than 40 million hectares during the 1990s.

While it is encouraging to recognize that Canada has made progress in some aspects of environmental protection, the reality is that on most environmental issues Canada is performing poorly. On 17 of 25 environmental indicators, Canada is among the five worst nations in the OECD.

The failure of Canadian environmental laws and policies results, in large part, from six systemic weaknesses:

* Canada still lacks a number of important environmental laws that are commonplace in other industrialized nations (e.g., national laws on air and water quality or requiring the clean-up of contaminated sites).

* Existing Canadian laws and regulations are undermined by excessive discretion.

* Environmental laws and policies fail to reflect contemporary scientific knowledge and principles, particularly when it comes to conserving habitat and biodiversity and to following the precautionary principle.

* Canadian environmental law suffers from inadequate resources for implementation and enforcement. Weak implementation and enforcement are exacerbated by budget cuts, the downloading of environmental responsibilities (from the federal government to the provinces, and from provinces to municipalities) and excessive reliance on voluntary initiatives.

* The public has insufficient opportunities to participate meaningfully in developing and enforcing environmental laws. …