Has this government presided over the most environmental progress?

Is there any chance Jason Kenney’s claims are more substantial than hopeful boasting?
This Sept. 19, 2011 aerial photo shows an oilsands tailings pond at a mine facility near Fort McMurray, Alta. Researchers doubt that oilsands-damaged land can be restored to what it was THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Jeff McIntosh/CP Images

Many strange things are asserted in Question Period, but every so often something so arrestingly unexpected is said that it commands special attention. So it was with Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s claim yesterday that this Conservative government has—“objectively speaking,” mind you—“made more progress on the quality of our environment and the air that we breathe than any government in the history of the Dominion.”

Is there any chance he’s got a point there? Kenney mentioned in passing five ways the government has achieved this triumph: “through the Clean Air Act, through the restriction on toxins, through the increased enforcement of our environmental laws, through higher fuel standards, through the reduction in carbon emissions as a result of our plan…”

Very briefly, the Clean Air Act, passed in 2006, amended three existing laws, notably relaxing the greenhouse gas emissions targets agreed to by the previous Liberal government. By “restrictions on toxins,” I’m assuming Kenney is referring to “Canada’s Chemicals Management Plan,” which seems a plausible approach to identifying and controlling harmful compounds. New North American fuel efficiency standards were indeed announced in 2010, but Canada generally follows the U.S. lead on North American auto emissions rules. I won’t hazard a guess about what Kenney means by “increased enforcement.”

So on four of the five items Kenney lists, it’s possible to credit some reasonable changes to existing law, certain tactical measures that are very open to debate, and possible advances building on previous regulation and practices. But nothing so far that jumps out as landmark. Which brings us to “reduction in carbon emissions as a result of our plan.”

I take it he’s alluding here to the Environment Minister Peter Kent’s recent interpretation of a report showing that Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions held steady in 2010 even though the economy grew.  Kent said this showed that the link between economic growth and rising emissions has been broken, and suggested this was evidence of “good progress in our sector-by-sector approach to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.”

But how this 2010 data could possibly indicate anything about the Conservative’s GHG emissions policy is mysterious, since the new auto efficiency standards only took effect for 2011 model year cars and light trucks, and the only other GHG emissions regulations the government has proposed, for the coal-fired electricity sector, aren’t slated to come into force until 2015.

In fact, so spotty and uncertain is the Conservative GHG emissions policy that the this spring’s report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development states: “The regulatory approach does not identify which specific industries within each economic sector the regulations will target and when, or how these regulations will contribute to reducing GHG emissions.”

Still, Kent flags a key development in noting that economic growth and more emissions don’t necessarily go together anymore.

Here’s what the “National Inventory Report: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada 1990-2010,” recently released by his department, said on that subject: “Together, efficiency increases and technological and structural changes have resulted in a continuing weakening of the link between GDP growth and emissions, so that the GHG intensity of the economy has decreased on average by 2.2 per cent per year since 1996. This has resulted in the decoupling of economic growth and emissions.”

That is intriguing. But this heartening trend obviously predates the current government by at least a decade and has nothing to do with its policies. Having a sense of recent history in these matters is helpful. Particularly so if anyone was actually serious about assessing which government in Canadian history presided over the most environmental progress.

What landmarks and evidence of purer air and water might be worth considering? Well, looking at Environment Canada’s National Air Pollution Surveillance Program, I see that lead concentrations in the air Canadians breathe plummeted 97 per cent after 1970, with huge reductions coming between 1971 and 1993. Sulfur dioxide levels also dropped sharply, notably in the early 1970s. Particulate matter in the air also declined dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s. Measurements of volatile organic compounds in the air started in 1990, and have trended down significantly since then.

Important laws, like those that took lead out of gas and paint, have benefited us all enormously. More recently, the watershed Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which came into force in 1988, was in large part the policy response to public concern about toxic scares like the infamous St. Clair River blob. The 2002 Species at Risk Act protected threatened and endangered species and, especially, their habitats.

It’s good to remember that pollution doesn’t respect borders. Many key moves have had an international dimension. Disturbing reports that Lake Erie was “dying” helped spur the 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and the U.S., which reduced phosphorous pouring into the lakes and began their recovery. The UN’s Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was signed in 1987. Bilateral determination to reduce acid rain led to the 1992 Canada-U.S. Air Quality Agreement.

Has anything comparable to any of these examples happened since 2006, when the Conservatives won power? It’s impossible to see the items Kenney mentioned as being of remotely similar weight.

So even if we leave aside grave misgivings over the environmental law changes stuffed unconventionally into the bloated budget bill now before the House, it’s hard to take Kenney’s boast as being based on anything more substantial than a combined hope that nobody would be paying much attention and, if anyone was, they wouldn’t know enough to laugh.