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An appropriate time for an action plan on pollution
A good way to mark Earth Day today
By Rick Smith
The Toronto Star

Published April 22, 2006


In politics, as in life, it's sometimes difficult to get credit for the good things you do. Your shortcomings, however, haunt you forever.

Such is certainly the case when it comes to environmental policy. The green accomplishments of political candidates and governments can occasionally get overlooked, but recent history is replete with examples of environmental screw-ups acquiring a larger political significance and badly harming reputations and electoral fortunes.

Bob Rae's government caused near-civil insurrection in many communities with its waste management strategy. David Peterson's decision on the Temagami wilderness caused him nothing but grief. Mike Harris suffered great damage to his reputation from the Walkerton tainted water tragedy. You get the picture. Leaders of all political stripes have worn their environmental failures like millstones around the neck.

Which brings us to Ottawa. The current environmental state of affairs at the federal level is unusual — not because of the media kerfuffle regarding federal climate change budgets, but rather because the new Conservative government has already constructed the yardstick against which its environmental accomplishments will be measured.

The government bills itself as the action-oriented alternative. Its favourite words include "competence" and "accountability." Its recent Speech from the Throne promised "tangible improvements in our environment, including reductions in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions." This commitment to "tangible reductions" is not only very welcome, but its framing is remarkably precise. The government didn't commit to funding programs, it didn't commit to new processes or discussions or vague timelines. It committed to the real thing: pollution reduction. And this is now the lens through which its progress will be assessed.

In the spirit of Earth Day, Brian Mulroney receiving an award this week as the greenest prime minister in Canadian history, and a federal government very keen on five-point plans, here is a Five-Point Plan for Tangible Pollution Reduction:

1) Ban poisonous pollutants that are already on their way out in the U.S. and Europe such as brominated flame retardants (found in many household products), and pthalates (found in medical equipment and children's toys).

2) Announce a national mercury pollution reduction program beginning with a phase-out of mercury-containing products where alternatives are available; an increased collection and recycling of mercury-containing products; and the adoption of a leadership role internationally in promoting global mercury reduction strategies. Mercury is a toxin that preferentially accumulates in the brain. It's particularly dangerous for children.

3) Announce an action plan to prevent pollution on Sept. 14, 2006. This is arguably one of the most significant dates ever in the history of Canadian environmental policy. It is Environment Canada's deadline for completing the categorization of the more than 23,000 pollutants in commerce in Canada.

The result of this process will be the public short-listing of the most serious pollutants. The government needs to be ready to go with, for example, a strategy to reduce the top 200 carcinogenic pollutants. The announcement of a further process, after the five-year categorization process that just occurred, will only further solidify Canada's reputation as the planet's biggest environmental deadbeat.

4) Announce a renewed priority for Great Lakes protection, beginning with a commitment to work with the U.S. on improving the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (which is up for renegotiation now), and new funding for a Canadian Great Lakes cleanup of toxic hotspots. George W. Bush and U.S. state governments are spending billions on Great Lakes cleanup. Thus far, Canada has spent virtually nothing.

5) Table a Clean Air Act to institute real national smog standards and a timetable for smog cleanup.

The fact of the matter is this: Canada has fallen so far behind the rest of the industrialized world when it comes to pollution reduction that even benign and familiar consumer products — things like sofas, cosmetics, and children's toys — are suffused with pollutants that are increasingly illegal in the rest of the world. The Five-Point Plan above is a road map for "tangible pollution reduction."

It's not rocket science. It's not breaking new ground. It would simply allow us to catch up with the rest of the world.


Rick Smith is executive director of Environmental Defence.

 

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