As a new decade dawns, Canada urgently needs a fresh start on environmental issues, especially at the national level.
Canadians, particularly younger generations, strongly believe in environmental protection and conservation. But they have become disillusioned by the ineffectiveness of the political debate on the subject - the failure of the ill-conceived Kyoto Protocol, the bungled presentation of carbon pricing by the Liberals under Stéphane Dion, conservatives' reluctance to become environmental champions, the acrimonious debate between global warming alarmists and skeptics, the indeterminate outcome of the recent Copenhagen talks.
However, grounds for more productive action do exist among Canadians who agree that it's a good idea to reduce the negative environmental consequences associated with hydrocarbons and that our decisions are not either/or choices (either regulatory action or market-based initiatives) but both/and choices.
As a starting point for new dialogue and action, let's focus on the principal horses (to use a Western analogy) that need to be harnessed to the environmental protection and conservation wagon.
FULL COST ACCOUNTING
"If it matters, measure it." Let's adopt expanded accounting practices that recognize the environmental and social effects of economic activities, identify the costs of mitigating them and gradually incorporate those costs into goods and service prices. Let's pay as much attention to national ecological accounts and gross national waste as we do to national economic accounts and gross national product. And to be equitable, full cost accounting needs to be applied to all energy sources, economic enterprises and regions - not just to petroleum and companies based in Western Canada.
SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, INNOVATION
STI has enormous contributions to make toward environmental and economic sustainability. Maximizing these contributions requires Canada to address two chronic problems: Our historic difficulty in managing and financing movement from the laboratory to the marketplace, and the need to anticipate and mitigate negative effects that accompany scientific innovations. Let's create a private-sector think tank/do tank dedicated to devising business strategies and public policies to address the first problem. And let's consistently perform impact assessments on innovative applications of old and new technologies (such as those associated with carbon capture and storage) to address the second.
Markets are devices for harnessing resources to meet demands, using pricing signals and monetary incentives. Historically, markets have been the most effective instruments to meet human demands for goods and services. But with effort, innovation and care, markets can also be harnessed to meet our demands for clean water and air, reclaimed soil and reductions in gross national waste. So let's get serious about attaching prices to the "goods and services" delivered by ecosystems (such as watersheds), incorporating the cost of mitigating environmental impact into the prices of conventional goods and services, and offering investors fair and reasonable returns on capital successfully invested in environmental protection and conservation.
GOVERNMENT POLICY AND REGULATION
Of course there is a major role for government policy and regulation in environmental protection and conservation, but let's sharpen our definition and exercise of that role. For starters, let's see governments lead more by example - after all, they are some of the country's largest consumers and resource owners. Let's see governments focus on macro-regulation, rather than trying to micro-manage individual or corporate behaviour. And since ecosystems like watersheds and air sheds don't respect political boundaries, let's see more delegation of environmental protection to one-window ecosystem-based regulatory authorities.
Much of the past emphasis on environmental protection has been on the supply side. But let's also find ways of making absolute reductions in those demands themselves. Full-cost accounting and pricing will have this effect. But let's also focus more of our educational and teaching resources on reducing our demands on finite resources and ecosystems.
Some of the solutions to our environmental challenges will require the forging of new eco-partnerships. Public-private utility partnerships, for example, can be used to finance and manage the conservation of watersheds. (One has been proposed for the management of the Athabasca watershed in Alberta.) The transportation and intermittency problems faced by wind and solar energy producers can be alleviated by partnering with non-renewable energy producers and shippers. And with respect to sustainable continental energy security, let's begin to seriously consider partnering with the United States in the creation of a North America Sustainability Agency - NASA II - to harness public and private resources to the objective of cleaning up oil-sand production, the same way the other NASA harnessed public and private resources to put a man on the moon.
NATIONAL POLITICAL LEADERSHIP
Past initiatives by the federal Conservatives have included substantial investments in environmental standards enforcement, the $2-billion ecoENERGY (clean energy) initiative, and establishment of the mandatory greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of 20% by 2020. Also to its credit, the Harper government has not made hypocritical international commitments on emissions reductions as did the Liberals at Kyoto nor has it bungled the presentation of a major environmental initiative (carbon taxes) as did the Liberal Opposition under Mr. Dion. At the national level, it is therefore the Conservative government that is in the best position to provide fresh start leadership on the environmental front. Such leadership might especially include more vigorously establishing the connection between "conservatism" and "conservation" (the words come from the same root); applying the core concepts of fiscal conservatism - "living within our means" and "balancing budgets" - to living within our means ecologically and balancing the ecological budget; reassessing the conservative application of science to environmental issues, including global warming, to ensure that it is principled and balanced; and most importantly, harnessing market mechanisms to the task of environmental protection and conservation as the "signature contribution" of conservatives to environmental and economic sustainability.
Preston Manning is president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.