Whales to caribou: UN environment report has lessons for Canada

By Bob Weber   

Industry Government Manufacturing environment manufacturing UN report

University studies consistently rank Canada near the bottom of industrialized nations for environmental policy.

NEW YORK — A UN report that concludes a million species are threatened with extinction and that “fundamental, structural change” is required to halt a steep decline in the natural environment has lessons for Canada, says one of its authors.

“The current fight that we’re having between provinces and the feds around oilsands, pipelines, climate change and local environmental impacts … is not actually a fight that we should be having,” said Kai Chan, a University of British Columbia professor, who helped write the report from the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

That report was released May 6 after a three-year effort by hundreds of scientists from 50 countries.

“The fact that we are faced with such a stark choice is actually the product of a broken 20th-century economy that’s not fit for purpose in the 21st century.”


The UN report is full of scary numbers compiled from more than 15,000 papers.

It says the current extinction rate is tens to hundreds of times higher than the 10-million-year average. Ocean plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1990, affecting nearly half of all seabird and marine mammals.

Since 1970, human population has doubled and the global economy increased four times, which has driven up energy demand and consumption. Climate change is now the third-largest driver of environmental change around the globe.

There are plenty of Canadian examples, said Chan.

Southern resident killer whales off the British Columbia coast: “That population is on the brink of no return.”

Mountain and boreal caribou: “It’s pretty clear a few of those herds are not going to make it.”

Melting Arctic permafrost: “There are some really dangerous climate feedbacks there.”

Just as worrisome is the declining ability of the environment to clean water, mitigate floods, nourish crops and sustain fisheries. The report concludes 14 out of 18 ways in which human communities depend on the environment are declining.

Canadians believe their country is much more environmentally conscious than it is, Chan said.

“Canadians imagine we live in a green country, because if you look at it from the air, it’s pretty green. The reality is, when you look at the state of our environmental legislation and policies, we are actually doing a pretty poor job.”

University studies using international standards consistently rank Canada near the bottom of wealthy industrialized nations for environmental policy.

“Our institutions don’t generally do a good job of thinking about the long term — neither our political institutions, nor our businesses,” Chan said.

The UN report offers policy choices to stop the deterioration. They include an end to production subsidies, widening the circle of economic decision-making, preventative action and tougher legislation.

Chan points to global environmental success stories – from the resurgent peregrine falcon to the end of widescale acid rain.

“Yes, nature is declining,” he said. “Yes, there is something we can do about it.”

What we really need, he said, is to think differently.

“We need to think seriously about the structure of our economy.”



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