Economic union’s environmental potential

October 1, 1992

Dear Friend:

As you know all too well, Canadians will soon need to decide the future of our country through the makeup of our new constitution. None of the government’s proposed constitutional changes were designed with the environment in mind but some changes will certainly affect the environment. I am writing you to explain why one proposal in particular—the economic union—would benefit the environment, and so deserves your support.

The economic union is designed to eliminate trade barriers between provinces, to promote competition and to allow Canadians to trade freely with one another. Although I believe that such competition, on balance, will benefit the economy, my purpose here is not to weigh the economic gains and costs—those will, I am sure, be examined at length in the run-up to the constitutional decisions. Instead, I want to discuss what economic union would mean to the environment, because otherwise this issue may not come to the attention of you and other Canadians—so far, certainly, this matter has been all but ignored.

The nations of the European Economic Community, after much constitutional wrangling of their own, several decades ago decided to form an economic union, and have been strengthening it ever since. The results are, with some very minor exceptions, overwhelmingly positive for the environment. Countries with weak environmental records, such as the U.K., Spain, and Italy, have been forced to raise their standards to meet those of the European Community. In the U.K., for example, which had one of the western world’s lowest water quality standards, the water utilities have been making enormous investments in sewage treatment, and successfully forcing industrial polluters and farmers (whose pesticides and fertilizers make them serious polluters) to clean up their own act. The U.K.’s coal-burning utilities are similarly reducing their emissions, to meet European acid gas regulations. Standards in the most polluting countries are being harmonized upwards, to meet European requirement that standards be set at “high” levels.

Countries wishing to set even higher standards for themselves may do so, as long as the purpose is environmental, and not to unfairly limit trade. When the U.K. and a coalition of foreign beer manufacturers took Denmark to court, arguing that a Danish law (requiring that bottles be returnable) constituted an unfair trade barrier designed to limit beer imports, the court ruled in Denmark’s favour: although the court agreed that the Danish law did constitute a trade barrier, it upheld the law’s main provision, finding that the law’s environmental benefits justified the constraint on free trade. This landmark case established the precedent that environmental goals form legitimate grounds for curbing economic interests.

Economic union among Canada’s provinces is likely to do the same thing—to lead to common environmental standards that prevent one province from using its territory as a refuge for polluting industries. Industries wouldn’t be entitled to such environmental subsidies any more than they would be to financial subsidies, and standards would tend to rise to match those of more stringent provinces.

But an economic union would benefit the environment for other reasons, quite apart from harmonizing standards upwards. Economic efficiency tends to mean doing more with less—using resources more efficiently—and that generally furthers environmental goals. Due to competition and efficiency, less copper is now needed in telecommunications and fewer copper mines need to be developed; with the introduction of competition, oil refineries polluted far less, thanks to more efficient processes that put less of the petroleum into the air; airplanes and trucks similarly improved their efficiency under the discipline of deregulation.

In Canada, where industry is subject to more economic regulation than many other parts of the developed world, our environmental standards lag far behind: we produce more garbage, consume more energy, emit more pollutants, than most western countries. A strong economic union provision in our constitution which applied pressure for environmental and economic efficiency improvements would be a highly significant step in the right direction.

If you agree that the environment can be protected through an economic union, please make your opinion felt by writing the Right Honourable Joe Clark, Minister of Constitutional Affairs, and urge him to persevere in making the economic union as strong as possible. Also help us identify and reach other Canadians who should be receiving this letter by filling out the enclosed form.

The current constitutional round is being dubbed “The Canada Round” because it will be addressing the needs of all Canadians. Let’s make sure “The Canada Round” also becomes “The Environmental Round,” by working to incorporate the economic union into the constitution.


Lawrence Solomon
Executive Director


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s