Has this government presided over the most environmental progress?

Is there any chance Jason Kenney’s claims are more substantial than hopeful boasting?


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.


Has this government presided over the most environmental progress?

  1. We haven’t been a ‘dominion’ since 1982…although I expect Harp to try and return us to that status….so the hyperbole…pardon me, Harperbole… is as usual….nonsensical.

    This is a 4 year olds kind of bragging.

    • Canada is still a dominion. “Dominion” was phased out as part of the official name of the country several decades ago, and “Dominion Day” was renamed in 1982, as you indicate. However, nowhere in the Canada Act is the designation of the country changed, so by default we still are what we have been from the beginning–a dominion. J.J. McCullough on his website filibuster . com has a nice explanation of all this. He relates the history of the official name, its gradual alteration to simply “Canada,” and concludes with the following statement: “There can be little debate that, legally speaking, Canada is a dominion, as many statutes and laws, including the BNA Act, do use that specific term to describe the nature of what Canada is.”

      • No, we are not a dominion….that is a legal status between colony and independent country

        India and Australia were also once dominions…so was Virginia for goodness sakes….it’s never been unique to Canada.

        Better to check legalities and history than listen to a cartoonist.

        • I will answer this once, because I know you do not like the word “dominion,” and I know that nothing I say will convince you. However, for anyone reading this who cares to know–
          I checked several sources, including the Canadian Encyclopedia, various Wikipedia entries, and the filibuster website. (Did you even check his site before you contemptuously dismiss him as only a cartoonist?) Everything I read agreed with the point that there has been no legal changing of the designation of the country. The Canada Act of 1982 established in law the use of the name “Canda,” although governments had been increasingly reluctant to use the full title of “Dominion of Canada” for decades before that. I’m not disputing that fact. What I am saying is that there was no change to the designation of the country as a dominion, even if the word “dominion” was dropped from the official name of the country.
          From Wikipedia:
          Use of the term dominion was formalized in 1867. . . . In the Constitution of Canada, namely the Constitution Act, 1867 (British North America Acts), the preamble of the Act indicates:
          “Whereas the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have expressed their Desire to be federally united into One Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom…”
          Nothing in The Canada Act of 1982 replaces or retracts this designation. That fact is the basis of my assertion that we are still a dominion, even though that word is not included in our name. A case in point showing the difference between my use of the words “designation” and “name” is the United States. Nowhere in the official name of that country do you see the word “republic,” and yet would you dispute that they are, in fact, a republic?

          • All you have to do is google ‘Dominion’ on Wikipedia

            And ‘Dominion of India’

            And then ‘Dominion of New Zealand’

            They aren’t dominions any more…and neither are we.

          • From your post and the ‘Name of Canada’ Wikipedia article, it leaves me thinking we’re in somewhat of a gray zone whether or not we’re officially a dominion or not (i.e. that section of the BNA act was never revoked in 1982, on the other hand it would seem ‘Dominion of Canada’ is rarely if ever used in official business any more).
            In any event, I suppose in the end it is all semantics. But I wanted to thank you for your insightful post – very interesting. I wish some of our other posters would provide more thoughtful analysis in defending their opinions…

  2. Is it possible he’s pulling this off as a nominal predicted quantity rather than a relative quantity; take the oil sands for instance, no one actually tried to hamper its production or reduce its GHG emmisions until now and considering its operations are considerably more massive than ever, then any kind of GHG emision reduction of efficiency measures is going to look like the biggest reduction in GHG emmisions in the history of ever.

    i.e. Spin City

  3. Let’s hope the Conservatives start their GHG reduction work by controlling the amount of methane coming out of Minister Jason Kenney.

  4. It’s hard to me to understand why he’s even trying this spin. Those who are paying attention and are not blind Conservative supporters dismiss it as the ridiculous lying hyperbole it is. Those who are not paying attention won’t hear of it. The blind Conservative supporters will of course support it, but they might have a little hiccup before doing so, because after all climate change is a hoax, the last thing we want to spend money on is an environment that continuously improves itself, etc.
    I mean, where is the upside in even trying this on?

  5. What I find strange is that you’d assume anything Kenney says has a remote possibility of being connected to truth in the first place.

  6. “It’s good to remember that pollution doesn’t respect borders.”

    Somebody needs to remind the odious Senator Eaton. She’s dutifully doing her part in the Conservative campaign of intimidation against Canadians concerned about the environment.

    Along the same lines: “NEB bars citizens from hearing” http://www.lfpress.com/news/london/2012/05/23/19789461.html

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