Right to a healthy environment recognized in new amendments to Canadian Environmental Protection Act

On April 13 the Government of Canada announced proposed amendments to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA), the cornerstone of federal environmental laws. Bill C-28 Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act promises to fast-track the regulatory process for particularly harmful chemicals; encourage companies to avoid toxic chemicals entirely and to phase-in mandatory product labelling , beginning with cosmetics, household cleaning products and flame retardants in upholstery. The Act also recognizes and protects the right of Canadians to a healthy environment. 

The government press release is here; and a  Backgrounder and Plain language summary of key amendments is provided. In addition, the government’s talking points about the CEPA amendments are highlighted in an Opinion piece by John Wilkinson, Canada’s Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, in The National Observer.  The amendments are the culmination of a long process, including hearings by the House Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development, which received 66 submissions. The Standing Committee report, Healthy Environment, Healthy Canadians, Healthy Economy: Strengthening the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 made 89 recommendations when it was released in 2017. A summary appeared in the WCR here.  

Right to Healthy Environment proposals

Is a healthy environment a right? New CEPA bill says so”, in The National Observer (April 14, re-posted in The Toronto Star) quotes Joe Castrilli, legal counsel for the Canadian Environmental Law Association.  He states: “This bill does not create a right to a healthy environment” …. “There’s a preamble provision which says the government recognizes that … it has the duty to protect the right to a healthy environment. But it doesn’t actually create a remedy for any individual seeking to protect the environment.”

A Joint statement released by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) Breast Cancer Action Quebec , EcoJustice, the David Suzuki Foundation, and Environmental Defence acknowledges the importance of Bill C-28, points out some weaknesses, and alludes to the debates which clearly lies ahead. From the Joint Statement :  

“Bill C-28 includes amendments to CEPA recognizing – for the first time in federal law – the right to a healthy environment . 156 UN member states already recognize this right in law, treaties and constitutions. The recognition of a right to a healthy environment in CEPA is an important step forward. However, the bill should ensure that this right has a positive impact on the lives of everyone in Canada, especially vulnerable populations who have long been denied environmental justice and disproportionately experience cumulative impacts of multiple interacting hazards. ….Bill C-28 is important as we continue to face the COVID-19 pandemic. A strengthened CEPA will be the backbone of a green and just recovery. ….All political parties must now make Bill C-28 a political priority.”

The Right to a Healthy Environment: even more is required to address environmental racism

The environmental rights and protections in Bill C-28 on April 13 come on the heels of private member’s Bill C-230, A National Strategy to Redress Environmental Racism (Bill C-230) , which was debated and passed 2nd Reading on March 24. C-230 will now come before the House Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, with the first meeting scheduled for April 14. C-230 goes further than the CEPA amendments regarding on environmental justice, and calls for the the government to

  • Examine the link between race, socio-economic status and environmental risk
  • Collect information and statistics relating to the location of environmental hazards
  • Collect information and statistics relating to negative health outcomes in communities that have been affected by environmental racism
  • Assess the administration and enforcement of environmental laws in each province

In addition, it calls for possible amendments to federal laws, policies, and programs, with the involvement of community groups, and with compensation for individuals or communities. A new article (published before the House of Commons vote) appears in Our Times in “Here for all Seasons: A Coalition to Confront Environmental Racism ”  (Feb. 21 2021). It describes some of those community and advocacy groups fighting on this issue, including the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU). The Labour Day 2020 issue of Our Times, summarized here, describes the role of labour unions in the struggle against environmental racism – in which CBTU has been prominent.

Climate Change Accountability Report shows rising emissions – B.C. government announces new GHG reduction targets

The government of British Columbia issued a press release on December 15 2020,   announcing new carbon reduction targets and the release of the first-ever Climate Change Accountability Report , highlighting progress on the CleanBC action plan.  From the press release: “The new emission target requires greenhouse gases in B.C. to be 16% below 2007 levels by 2025. It provides a benchmark on the road to B.C.’s legislated emission targets for 2030, 2040 and 2050 of 40%, 60% and 80% below 2007 levels, respectively. The Province will also set sectoral targets, which will be established before March 31, 2021, and will develop legislation to ensure B.C. reaches net-zero emissions by 2050.”

“Climate Change Accountability Report discloses that B.C. carbon emissions rose three percent in 2018” in The Straight  (Dec. 16) highlights some findings which the government downplayed – for example,  in 2018, “Gross emissions reached 67.9 million tonnes. That’s up a whopping 7.3 million tonnes from 2010, which went unremarked in the report.” The article also quotes from an interview with Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman, pointing out that “Heyman also admitted that the government has never done any modelling of carbon emissions that goes beyond LNG Canada’s phase one portion of its plant in Kitimat.”

The response by the Sierra Club B.C. summarized the reactions of environmental advocacy groups, which commended the government for the transparency of the Climate Accountability Report, while criticizing the fossil-friendly policies which have led to missed GHG reduction targets.   Reiterating the long-standing criticisms over LNG, notably, by David Hughes of the CCPA-B.C in a July 2020 report,   the Sierra Club B.C. states: “It is clear that if we continue to allow the growth of oil and gas extraction in this province we won’t ever be able to get climate pollution under control” …. “The sooner we begin a serious conversation about the transition away from fracking and all other forms of fossil fuels, the less disruptive and painful the transition will be for workers, our communities, and the most vulnerable among us.”

The Pembina Institute calls the report  “sobering” and “a much-needed wake-up call”, while calling for improvements.  “The report is inconsistent in its provision of details, which makes it difficult to assess whether or not climate programs should be continued, enhanced, redesigned, or replaced to effectively and efficiently make progress to targets. For a fulsome picture of climate progress, we expect future accountability reports to provide more clarity. We need to see the emissions reductions achieved to date by specific programs; annual budget allocations for programs and the corresponding (anticipated) emissions reductions; how the government has acted on the advice of the Climate Solutions Council; and what course corrections will be made to meet our climate targets. Once interim and sector-specific targets are established, the report should evaluate progress against these goals as well.”

British Columbia as part of the myth of eco-friendly Cascadia

Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia  is a new investigative series launched on January 11 with an article published in The Tyee under the title “Cascadia Was Poised to Lead on Climate. Can It Still?”.  (At the InvestigateWest website, the same article appeared as “A Lost Decade: How climate action fizzled in Cascadia”) . It documents the rise of GHG emissions in the jurisdictions which compose Cascadia: British Columbia and the states of Washington and Oregon. The article summarizes political developments, summarizes the development of carbon taxes, and argues that weak decarbonization policies  – especially in the transportation sector- are behind the failure to reduce emissions. “Between full economic recovery in 2012 and 2018, the most recent reporting year, California and Cascadia both booked a robust 26 percent increase in GDP. Over that period California drove its annual emissions down by more than 5 percent. Washington’s emissions —and Cascadia’s as a whole — ballooned by over 7 percent.”   According to the article, for the period 2012 to 2018, “vehicle emissions had ballooned by over 10% in Washington and Oregon and more than 29% in BC (in contrast California’s grew only 5% during that period.)”

From the article:

“So why is environmentally-conscious Cascadia stuck in first gear? The consensus answer from experts and activists interviewed by InvestigateWest: a shortage of political will. The region has been beset by partisan wrangling, fear of job losses, disagreements over how to ensure equity for already polluted and marginalized communities, and misinformation obscuring the full potential of well-documented solutions. “The constraining factor has always been political feasibility, not economic feasibility,” says political economist and energy modeling expert Mark Jaccard, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC, and a former chair of the British Columbia Utilities Commission.”

The series Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia  is the result of a  year-long reporting initiative led by InvestigateWest, in partnership with Grist, Crosscut, The Tyee, the South Seattle Emerald, The Evergrey, and Jefferson Public Radio.  It will run throughout 2021, aiming to document and analyse the political and economic forces and barriers to climate action in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, generally perceived as one of the most eco-friendly regions in the world.

Canada’s report to the UNFCC shows an increase in GHG emissions

ghg emissions_NIR 2018As required by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), Canada submitted its National Inventory Report on April 14, available from the U.N. website.   The Executive Summary   at the Canadian government website  announces that the Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were 729 million tons of CO2 and equivalent in 2018, (the latest figures available).  This is an increase of 15 million tons from 2017, and a reduction of only 1 million tons from 2005 – making Canada’s Paris Agreement target of a 30% reduction from 2005 levels a very challenging goal. The Executive Summary attributes the 2018 performance  to “higher fuel consumption for transportation, winter heating and oil and gas extraction.” The Toronto Star summarizes the official report in  “Canada’s emissions count jumped 15 million tonnes in 2018 from previous year, report shows” (April 15) ; a summary also appeared in The National Observer, focused on British Columbia.  The federal Green Party press release points out that Canada has missed the February deadline to submit its new target for Nationally Determined Contributions, and calls for Canada  to reduce our GHG’s to 60 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.  (In comparison, the latest EU target under debate is a 55% reduction by 2030  ).

The full National Inventory Report presents statistics since 1990, and analyses trends by region and according to industries – including energy, industrial processes, agriculture, land use (forestry) and waste management. It also measures emissions in 2018 by important gases, including carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane. Carbon dioxide (CO2) accounted for 80% of Canada’s total emissions. Nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions (76% of which come from agriculture) accounted for 5%  in 2018, a 2.4% decrease from 1990 levels. Synthetic gases (HFC’s, PFC’s, SF6 and NF3) constituted slightly less than 2% of national emissions.

Canada’s other big polluter: methane

According to Canada’s National Inventory Report, methane accounted for 13% of Canada’s total emissions in 2018, an increase of  1% since 1990.  43% of those emissions are attributed to fugitive sources in oil and natural gas systems and another 31% from agriculture.  The  International Energy Agency  also tracks methane emissions from the oil and gas industry here , and in February 2020 summarized and critiqued Canada’s new policies to reduce methane emissions attributable to the oil and gas industry.   Methane (CH4) is a growing concern for global GHG emissions – as reported in an article in  Scientific AmericanMethane levels reach an all-time high” (April 12) , which summarizes recent reports by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) .

Blue skies from locked-down economies are fleeting – we still need strong policies to reduce carbon emissions

A statement from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on Earth Day estimates that the pandemic will result in a six per cent drop in carbon emissions in 2020 , but warned “COVID-19 may result in a temporary reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but it is not a substitute for sustained climate action”.  The full WMO Statement on Global Climate Change continues …. “We need to show the same determination and unity against climate change as against COVID-19. We need to act together in the interests of the health and welfare of humanity not just for the coming weeks and months, but for many generations ahead.”

Scientists are speaking out against the “good news” approach of highlighting clear skies as a silver lining in the Covid crisis. Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University, writes “I am a mad scientist” , calling for bolder climate change action, and stating  :

“I’m angry at the very idea that there might be a silver lining in all this. There is not. Carbon dioxide is so long-lived in the atmosphere that a small decrease in emissions will not register against the overwhelming increase since the start of the Industrial Revolution. All this suffering will not make the planet any cooler. If the air quality is better now, if fewer people die from breathing in pollution, this is not a welcome development so much as an indictment of the way things were before. “

U.K. financial consultants MSCI express similar thoughts from an economic viewpoint in “Will coronavirus reduce emissions long term? .  “This modeled decline in 2020 emissions does not necessarily indicate a structural change to our current world economy. The estimated emission levels are still comparable to those observed over the past five years, and the economy could readily rebound, returning emissions to prior levels. China already increased its industrial output when their quarantine began to slowly lift. Once Europe and the U.S. lift lockdowns and reopen borders, travel, commuting and economic output could return to “normal” levels. Thus, the projected decrease in global emissions could be short-lived. If so, the risk climate change poses to countries, companies and investors has not dissipated. A much more visible and immediate crisis has simply overshadowed it.”

Researchers from the Stockholm Environment Institute are interviewed in “COVID-19 pandemic raises new questions about the health impacts of air pollution”  and explain how  encouraging pictures of blue skies do not reflect the complexities of air pollution. The article, importantly, also seeks to counter the mis-impression that reduced economic activity is necessary to reduce air pollution, by pointing to the more important policy measures in many countries, including Canada, which have been improved air quality and human health without compromising economic growth.

Addressing environmental racism through legislation and through activism

Bill C-230, An Act respecting the Development of a National Strategy to Redress Environmental Racism  is a private members bill introduced to the federal House of Commons on Feb. 26 by Nova Scotia MP Lenore Zann, seconded by Elizabeth May of the Green Party. The Bill calls on the government to develop a national strategy which will address the disproportionate number of Indigenous or racialized people who live in environmentally hazardous areas. If passed, the Bill would require the Minister of Environment and Climate Change “to consult with representatives of provincial and municipal governments, of Indigenous communities and of other affected communities, as well as with any other affected persons and bodies.”  Further, the strategy must:

  • (a) examine the link between race, socio-economic status and environmental risk;
  • (b) collect information and statistics relating to the location of environmental hazards;
  • (c) collect information and statistics relating to negative health outcomes in communities that have been affected by environmental racism;
  • (d) assess the administration and enforcement of environmental laws in each province; and
  • (e) address environmental racism including in relation to
    • (i) possible amendments to federal laws, policies and programs,
    • (ii) the involvement of community groups in environmental policy-making,
    • (iii) compensation for individuals or communities,
    • (iv) ongoing funding for affected communities, and
    • (v) access of affected communities to clean air and water.

Member of Parliament Zann had previously introduced Bill 111, The Environmental Racism Prevention Act  in 2015,  when she was a member of the  provincial legislature Waldron something in the water coverof Nova Scotia . An article in Saltwire (Feb. 28) explains how Nova Scotia has become a centre for research and action on environmental racism –  led by the research of Dr. Ingrid Waldron of Dalhousie University. Dr. Waldron’s book,  There’s Something in the Water,  was published by Fernwood Press in 2018 and has been turned into a documentary co-directed by Halifax-born star Ellen Page.   In 2017, the East Coast Environmental Law Association  proposed an innovative  Nova Scotia Environmental Bill of Rights  which states that the people “have a right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment”, and recognizes that “there is a history of environmental racism in Nova Scotia that has disproportionately and negatively affected historically marginalized, vulnerable, and economically disadvantaged individuals, groups or communities, particularly Indigenous People and African Nova Scotians”.

Green is Not White

On the same day as Bill C-230 was introduced, Medium’s Asparagus magazine took up the issue of racism in the environmental movement.   “Too White to Solve the Climate Crisis?” (Feb. 26)  discusses the white elitism of the environmental movement, and offers the example of the Green is Not White project, which educates Green_Is_Not_White_cover ACWtrade unionists about environmental racism and advocates for the rights and inclusion of Black, Asian, and Indigenous workers in a zero-carbon economy. The Green is Not White project was begun in December 2016 by the Ontario branch of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) , led by Chris Wilson of the Public Service Alliance of Canada,  in collaboration with the  Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Climate Change (ACW).  Its work engages community and labour activists in workshops and participative research , and  has  also been highlighted in Rabble.ca (Feb. 29) and  in Our Times .

The Twitter account at  #EnvRacismCBTUACW posts frequently,  and the ACW website compiles previous articles, resources, videos, and handouts here – including  descriptions of the workshops and free downloads of  a Workshop Guide , a detailed (35-page) Facilitator’s Notes and a  Presentation which concludes with this statement:

“If Canada’s racialized and indigenous communities are not engaged in the struggle, the transition to a green economy will not be just. There can be no change without a struggle.”