October 24, 2006
Our water and our air are under siege, and our governments are doing precious little to protect them. Warnings have been sounded by two of Canada’s most prominent environmental watchdogs. Together, they demonstrate the pressing need for a new approach to environmental protection.
Earlier this month, Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner accused the provincial government of mismanagement and neglect of the environment and warned of grave and long-lasting consequences. He reported on "government inaction in almost every area of environmental management," pointing to shortcomings in the regulation of agriculture, sewage treatment, industrial air emissions, water wells, landfills, fisheries, and the transportation sector.
The Commissioner highlighted the government’s failure to ensure that farmers safely manage their manure. The result, he charged, has "weakened both accountability and the assurance that farmers are following the rules that protect human health." The Commissioner was equally critical of the government’s failure to stop municipal sewage pollution. Pointing to "overwhelming evidence that sewage bypasses and inadequate sewage treatment remain major, chronic pollution sources for many Ontario lakes and rivers," he lambasted the environment ministry for refusing to crack down on municipal polluters. His conclusion? "At some crucial level, the ministry lacks the resolve to face and fix the problem."
The Ontario government is by no means alone in its failure to protect the environment. Just days before Ontario’s Commissioner released his report, the federal Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development released her annual audit of the federal government’s environmental performance. The Commissioner looked at 39 commitments made by federal departments and agencies and assessed the actions taken to achieve them. Alarmingly, progress was unsatisfactory on more than 30 percent of the commitments she examined. Some departments, she reported, have made only "minimal efforts toward meeting their commitments" and "are far from making progress."
Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada was among the departments singled out as making unsatisfactory progress. The Commissioner criticized the department’s plan to promote best practices in the use and protection of water resources – key portions of which are five years behind schedule. Although the department had committed to developing a performance measure and establishing a baseline by 2003, indicators for water efficiency may not be ready until 2008.
These reports illustrate how unwise it is to assume that politicians and bureaucrats can and will protect the environment. Municipal, provincial, and federal governments – Liberal, Conservative, and NDP alike – have utterly failed as responsible stewards of our air, land, and water. If we are to continue to entrust them with responsibility for our natural resources, we need to develop mechanisms to hold them accountable for the decisions they make and for the actions they take or fail to take.
At the same time, we need to develop institutions, economic and legal, that encourage environmental protection despite government inaction. We need to cultivate systems that create incentives to use resources sustainably – systems that, in internalizing the costs of pollution, encourage industry to preserve the environment, regardless of the policies of the party in power or its commitment to environmental preservation.
Perhaps most important, we need to empower citizens to act when incentives fail and governments dither. We have long understood that concerned citizens are better environmental stewards than even the most vigilant regulators, and we have long promoted mechanisms for more effective citizen involvement. Greater freedom of information, better funding for citizen participation in regulatory hearings, and easier access to the courts for both common-law actions and private prosecutions are essential components of an informed, empowered citizenry.
For years we have worked for a new approach to environmental protection – one that enables citizens to hold both polluters and regulators accountable and empowers them to act when others fail. The environmental watchdogs’ reports underscore the value of our approach. Please support this important work with a generous donation.