Does the Environment Matter to Canada?
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The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 3 Apr 2001, p. 287-300


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Strong, the Hon. Maurice, Speaker
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Text
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Speeches
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The speaker's thoughts on the current state of the environment, what this means to Canada, and what Canadians can do about it --at home and internationally. The Stockholm Conference of 1972 that put the environment on the international agenda; the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992; and other events. The continuing deterioration of the environment. The speaker's position on these issues. The doomsday scenario that is not inevitable. Warnings. Sustainable development, not yet conventional wisdom or common practice. Why the environment matters. Evidence for the recession in the political will to deal with the environmental issues which are essential to our future. The special stake that Canadians have in ensuring the health of the global environment. Canada's consumption of energy. Our lack of a viable plan to meet Kyoto targets. Some promising bright spots. Convincing the government. The performance of corporations and the behaviour of individuals as the key to sustainable development. The position of developing countries. Canada as the nation best positioned to take the lead. The local Agenda 21, based on the global Agenda 21 agreed at Rio and what this can mean. The 21st century as the decisive one for determining the future of the human species. The priorities of security and life support systems. Taking the prospect of doomsday seriously; remaining optimistic.
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3 Apr 2001
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English
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The speeches are free of charge but please note that the Empire Club of Canada retains copyright. Neither the speeches themselves nor any part of their content may be used for any purpose other than personal interest or research without the explicit permission of the Empire Club of Canada.
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Full Text
The Hon. Maurice Strong
Special Advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations and President, United Nations University for Peace
DOES THE ENVIRONMENT MATTER TO CANADA?
Chairman: Catherine Steele
President, The Empire Club of Canada

Head Table Guests

John F. Bankes, Managing Director, Artemis Management Group Incorporated and Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Reverend Chris King, Rector, Little Trinity Anglican Church; Jennifer Correira, Second-Year Student, York University and Co-Founder and Director, TakingITGlobal; Peter Nicol, Senior Vice-President, CH2M Canada Limited; Rod Taylor, Executive Vice-President, Planning and Development, Hydro One; The Hon. Frank McKenna, Barrister and Solicitor, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin, LLP and Former Premier of New Brunswick; John A. Campion, Partner, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin, LLP and Past President, The Empire Club of Canada; Ed Houghton, CEO, Town of Collingwood Public Utilities Commission; David Menzel, Barrister and Solicitor, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin, LLP; and Andrew Benedek, Founder, President and CEO, Zenon Environmental.

Introduction by Catherine Steele

It is my privilege to welcome our guest speaker, The Honourable Maurice Strong, Special Advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations and President of the United Nations University for Peace.

Environmental issues in Canada may not always register on the top of the radar screen for Canadians. In these times when the economy is dominating the news, topics such as water or air quality or the sustainability of our forest or fish resources seemingly take a back seat.

But it was only a little more than a year ago when water quality dominated the headlines with Walkerton and a situation that has national implications. And as we approach another summer here in Toronto, we are all too familiar with the air-quality warnings that will be issued.

Can economics and the environment be separated? Can the environmental movement be passed off as some left-wing preoccupation or do Canadians accept its importance as a lifelong commitment inextricably linked to their economic survival?

Our guest today, The Honourable Maurice Strong is here to speak about Canada's commitment to the environment.

A native of Manitoba, Mr. Strong has awards, appointments, past occupations and associations too numerous to mention, though some of you may remember him as the former chair of Ontario Hydro from 1992 to 1995.

His passion and belief in environmental causes is strong and has garnered him several awards such as Companion of the Order of Canada, the IKEA Environmental Award, the Millennium Award of the Princes Award Foundation in Denmark and the Brazilian National Order of the Southern Cross.

We are pleased to have him with us here today. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome The Honourable Maurice Strong to The Empire Club of Canada.

Maurice Strong

It is some time now since I have had the privilege of addressing this important forum. I am pleased on this occasion to have the opportunity of sharing with you my thoughts on the current state of the environment, what this means to Canada and what Canadians can do about it--at home and internationally.

The Stockholm Conference in 1972 put the environment on the international agenda. And the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 brought together more world leaders than had ever before assembled to address an unprecedented series of measures designed to set the world community on the pathway to a more sustainable future. These gave rise to an immense increase in public awareness of, and political attention to, environmental concerns. There has been notable progress in dealing with some of the more immediate and acute environmental problems in industrialised countries-the clean-ups of rivers and lakes, reductions in industrial pollution and improvement of air quality in some of the more seriously polluted cities. These success stories have demonstrated that where there is the will to act it is possible to deal effectively with environmental problems. They made clear the manifest benefits of timely and preventative action.

Nevertheless despite progress in a number of areas, overall the environment continues to deteriorate and risks to the human future escalate along with the forces driving these processes--continuing population growth in developing countries and wasteful, environmentally damaging patterns of production and consumption in industrialised countries. Does this portend, as the doomsayers insist, the demise of the human species or, as the naysayers contend, that the environment ""movement"" is just another passing fad to which we have already given too much attention?

Let me tell you immediately, and perhaps not surprisingly, where I stand. I believe that the doomsday scenario is entirely possible-indeed probable-if we continue on our present course. In my book on the subject ""Where on Earth are We Going?"" I present an ominous scenario of the societal breakdown which would be a plausible result of continuing on our present ""business-as-usual"" pathway. This doomsday scenario is not inevitable. I point to it because I am convinced that it is only by realising that this ominous prospect is a real possibility if we continue on our current course, that we can avoid it. If we can develop the public awareness and political will required to prevent it, we can bring about the much more secure, promising and sustainable future to which people everywhere aspire. I am convinced that this is achievable. But not in the way we are now going about it.

An impressive group of world business leaders in their report to the Earth Summit in 1992 warned that our current industrial model is not viable and called for a ""change of course"" to a model that is sustainable in environmental and social as well as in economic terms. They made the point that this would be good for business as well as for society and many of them have demonstrated this in their own businesses since then. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a recent speech: ""You don't have to be an expert to realise that sustainable development is going to become the greatest challenge we have faced this century."" If more world leaders share this conviction and come to the Johannesburg Sustainable Development Summit next year prepared to act decisively, it could yet be a turning point onto the pathway to a sustainable future for humanity.

If this is so, why is it that sustainable development has not yet become conventional wisdom or common practice? Why is it that while some businesses are setting such a good example demonstrating that environmental responsibility and sustainable development are good for business, others are pressing for softer environmental regulation and enforcement. There are even some in the energy industry attempting to shift blame for energy shortages to environmentalism while denying the important responsibility that the energy industry has for its environmental impacts. I am pleased also to acknowledge that some of the most environmentally enlightened and responsible business leaders are from the energy industry.

Why does the environment matter? Why should we allow protection and improvement of the environment to stand in the way of economic growth and complicate management of our businesses? Despite the tendencies of some to consider the environment as a marginal issue, which we can relegate to secondary priority until we have achieved our economic goals, the environment is indeed central to those goals. It is inextricably linked to them and to the means by which we seek to achieve them. The environment in which we live is in fact a product of the multiplicity of conditions provided by nature and modified by human activity on which human survival, health and well-being depend. Sustainable development is the process by which we attempt to manage our impacts on nature so as to effect a positive synthesis between the economic, social and environmental dimensions of the development process to produce an environment that will sustain and enhance human life.

Growth of the human population and the scale and intensity of human activities have reached the point at which we are now impacting on the environment, natural resource and life-support systems on which human life and well-being depend. We are literally the primary agents of our own future; what we do or fail to do will determine the future of civilisation, as we know it. And from all the evidence I have seen I believe that the direction will be set, probably irrevocably, within the first three decades of this century. This is an awesome responsibility, the implications of which we have not really begun to absorb or to incorporate into our political life. It is an ominous paradox that as the evidence becomes more compelling that we are moving along an unsustainable pathway, we are experiencing something of a recession in the political will to deal with the environmental issues which are essential to our future.

Let me cite some of the evidence:

• The use of renewable resources-arable land, forests, fresh water, coastal areas and fisheries on a worldwide basis-is exceeding their natural regeneration capacity. In Canada we have already seen the devastating effect of depleted fish stocks on the communities which depend upon them. Tropical forests and other natural areas that contain most of the world's precious biological resources are diminishing as the result of expansion of agricultural land, human settlements as well as uncontrolled exploitation.
• Twenty-five per cent of the world's land area is affected by soil erosion and other forms of land degradation. Since 1980, 10 per cent of the forests of the developing world have been lost as well as 27 per cent of the world's coral reefs.
• The increasing, pervasive use of toxic chemicals is producing growing risks to human health, contamination of the environment and food chain.
• Emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are exceeding even the modest stabilisation targets internationally agreed under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Negotiations to ensure adherence to those targets have stalled and now face the prospect of breakdown, in light of the attitude of the new U.S. administration.
• Government policies, tax incentives and subsidies continue to favour increasing supplies of energy including fossil fuels over improving energy efficiency, reducing the polluting effects of fossil fuels and developing alternative sources.
• Population growth and unplanned urbanisation, concentrated primarily in developing countries, continue to place severe and mounting strains on already stressed and vulnerable eco-systems.
• Most cities in the developing world and many in the industrialised world face the prospect of shortages of potable water and deteriorating water quality.
• Medical scientists warn of a greater risk of communicable diseases-both resurgence of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis formerly thought to have been brought under control and the spread new diseases. As we have seen recently in the outbreak of mad-cow and foot and mouth disease in Europe this can also apply to animals with severe economic and social consequences for people.
• While economic growth in recent years has enabled many people to emerge from poverty, there are still more people suffering from debilitating poverty than ever before and the gap between rich and poor has widened dramatically in both rich and poor countries. Paradoxically the environment suffers both from the excesses of the rich and the strivings of the poor to meet their most basic survival needs. Surely it is an affront to the moral basis of our civilisation-the wealthiest civilisation ever-that we permit such human poverty and suffering to persist. Surely history tells us that societies which tolerate such gross dichotomies and imbalances are not sustainable. It is in this broader context that the issues of environment and sustainable development must be viewed, for environmental health and sustainability is the product of a complex system of cause and effect through which human activities impact on the natural resources and life-support systems on which we depend to produce the conditions which nourish and sustain our lives.

Canadians have a special stake in ensuring the health of the global environment. On a per-capita basis Canadians have custody of a greater portion of the earth's environment than any other people. And with this custody goes responsibility.

In my early career in the international environmental movement I took pride in, and was very much helped by, Canada's strong and enlightened leadership, both in setting an example at home and in negotiating international environmental agreements. We continue to be skilful in presenting our case internationally, but we have a much weaker case to present. Clear-cutting of British Columbia's original forests focused international attention on this aspect o€ our environmental performance. And the tragic consequences of contamination of the water supply at Walkerton made it clear that Canada is not immune to the water crisis that threatens so many others around the world.

These incidents have pointed out dramatically the fact that though we are one of the world's principal forestry nations and have some 25 per cent of the world's fresh water, we are still not managing our natural resources sustainably. Our forest industry is now making encouraging progress towards sustainability in the harvesting of our forestry resources, as Sweden has already done.

Canada will not meet the Kyoto targets for reduction in its carbon dioxide emissions and remains at the top of the list of the world's largest per-capita contributors to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And we have no viable plan to meet these targets. We should take no comfort from the fact that measures to do so may be temporarily relieved by the impasse in the climate change negotiations. Delay will only increase the costs and the risks of dealing with this issue, which is of decisive importance to the human future. The irony is that this weakening of the will to deal with climate change comes just as the scientific evidence of the effects we are having on climate and its consequences for our future has become more compelling.

There are some promising bright spots.

At the federal level it is encouraging to know that more resources are now being allocated to the environment. I am particularly pleased to see the new funding that has been extended to energy-saving infrastructure for municipalities and to reduce smog which it is estimated results in premature death of some 5,000 Canadians each year. We can be hopeful, and must be watchful, that this portends a much-needed increase in the priority the federal government accords to the environment and its support for the dedicated but frequently embattled Minister of the Environment, David Anderson.

Under our federal system the provinces bear a major share of responsibility for care and protection of the environment. Ontario, the largest province both in terms of population and the size of our economy, should be in the lead. Yet Ontarians should be deeply concerned that our province has slipped to near the bottom of the list in ratings of Canadian provinces and U.S. states for their environmental performance. The costs of our environmental neglect cannot be avoided; indeed these costs will only multiply when we neglect and defer them. Passive concern is not enough. We must activate our concern to make it clear to our political leaders that they can no longer ignore them. The environment is, indeed, one of Ontario's major assets. It provides the people of Ontario with the quality of life, which makes this the greatest place in the world to live. Ontario's quality of life has been put at risk by the deliberate and systematic downgrading of the environment as a priority and this government's severe cuts to the budget of the Ministry of the Environment and other agencies, which administer and enforce environment and related regulations. The Walkerton tragedy is I suspect just the first portent of the immense costs we will pay for this-in both human and economic terms. Let me make clear that my intention in pointing this out is not to condemn the government but to convince it.

There is persuasive evidence that the cost of environmental protection and preventive measures is far less than the cost of deferring them until they have damaged human life, health and well-being. This is an issue to which all Ontarians should hold their political leaders to the highest standards. It is essential to support those committed to revitalising the environmental integrity of this province, and making it a world-class example of a sustainable society. Governments will act when people compel them to do so. For however committed it may be, a government cannot go far ahead of the will of its people. And however reluctant or regressive a government may be, it cannot fail to respond to the concerted will of its people. So if Canada is to lead, Canadians must lead.

The performance of corporations and the behaviour of individuals is the key to sustainable development. It is strongly influenced by the system of tax incentives, subsidies and regulations that governments put in place. The best single thing that Canada could do to revitalise its return to leadership at the United Nations Summit on Sustainable Development to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa, next year would be to review and revamp this system so as to provide positive incentives for sustainable development. I urge Finance Minister, Paul Martin, whom I know has a strong commitment to the environment, to move this to the top of his agenda. The broad respect he enjoys internationally and his chairmanship of the recently formed Group of Twenty give him a special opportunity to take the lead in this.

Developing countries which first saw the environment as a disease of the rich that threatened to divert attention and resources from their own primary concerns with development and relief of poverty are now taking the environment issue more and more seriously. It is not that they are heeding the rhetoric of the North but rather that they are experiencing acute environmental problems of their own and realising the cost in economic and human terms. They continue to insist with good reason that industrialised countries, which are the primary sources of the global environmental crisis, bear the principal costs of dealing with it. And it is clearly in our interest to do so. For developing countries cannot be denied the right to grow and in doing so they will inevitably become the main contributors to such global environmental risks as climate change. Indeed our environmental future will be primarily decided by developing countries. It is essential that we facilitate their access to the financial resources and technologies they require to make the transition to sustainable development. This would not be an act of charity on our part but a sound and necessary investment in our environmental future.

No nation is better positioned to take the lead in this than Canada. Despite our lagging performance at the government level, Canada still has an important legacy of credibility and experience from its past leadership and the important role that Canadians have played in the international environmental movement. We have a great deal of professional expertise and technological capacity in the field. And we have progressive companies like Husky Injection Molding Systems and Noranda Inc. that are setting a good example in their fields. Canada has built as one of its most promising and dynamic growth sectors a world-class environmental services and technology industry. It has a great potential for further growth and job creation, particularly if our governments begin to accord higher priority to the environment. My own principal business activities are concentrated in this field through my association with CH2M Hill and Zenon Environmental Inc., both world leaders in their fields.

One of the most successful results of the Earth Summit has been the adoption by over 3,000 cities and towns around the world of their local Agenda 21 based on the global Agenda 21 agreed at Rio. The organisation driving this process, the International Council for Local

Environment Initiatives (ICLEI), is headquartered here in Toronto which I am pleased to say has taken some innovative and effective initiatives to improve its own environment.

I am persuaded that the 21st century will be decisive in determining the future of the human species. As the dominant species on this planet, we are a species now out of control. We have no option but to manage more effectively the actions by which we are shaping the human future and indeed all life on earth. We can only do this in co-operation with other nations and the full engagement and participation of all sectors of our societies. In this, no nation, however powerful, can go it alone. And no government can do it alone. We must develop far more effective means of engaging the various sectors of civil society in this process and bring them in off the streets to the forums and the negotiating tables where decisions are made.

All nations have always been willing to accord highest priority to those measures required to ensure their own security. The risks the human community faces today to the life support systems on which all life depends are greater than we face or have ever faced from our conflicts with each other. To be sure, the prevention of conflict and preservation of peace remain a central priority and one which is linked intrinsically and systemically with the need for environmental security and sustainability. This is why in my own life I am focusing my efforts on revitalising the University for Peace established some 20 years ago by international agreement approved by the UN General Assembly to serve and support the peace and security goals of the United Nations through education, training and research. We have forged a strategic alliance with the Earth Council, a people-based non-governmental organisation dedicated to implementation of sustainable development and ensuring environmental security particularly at the grassroots level.

Not all issues need to be managed at the global level. In fact, most do not. I am a great believer in the principle of subsidiarity under which every issue is managed at the level closest to the people concerned at which it can be managed successfully. Global environmental and sustainability issues and others related to peace, security and the economy require a degree of global co-operation which goes much beyond anything we have yet put in place. World government is neither necessary nor feasible. But we do need a world system through which nations and people can co-operate in dealing with issues which none can deal with effectively alone.

Finally let me say that despite my warnings that we must take the prospect of doomsday seriously I am an optimist. Operationally, pessimism would be self-fulfilling. We have a civilisation that is based on an unprecedented degree of knowledge on the part of people which enables us to understand our dilemma and to develop solutions for virtually every problem and challenge we face. The wealth of our civilisation is unprecedented as is the capacity to produce new wealth. But any economic system, which exacerbates the imbalances and inequities within our societies, will ultimately be self-defeating.

We have learned a great deal about the damage we are doing to ourselves by the same processes by which we have created the unprecedented prosperity enjoyed by our industrial societies. We have developed techniques and technologies that permit us to deal effectively with these problems and to provide all of the peoples of the earth the access to a better life that is within our reach. Why then, if we have the knowledge and we have the means are we not concentrating our attention on creating that better future rather than continuing on the pathway to doomsday? After many years working in this field I am deeply convinced that the real issue is motivation. I have already mentioned the importance of governments in motivating the behaviour of corporations and individuals.

At the deepest level all people and all societies are motivated by their moral, ethical and spiritual values. This is the reason that I have been focusing so much of my own efforts in co-operation with Mikhail Gorbachev and many others around the world in developing a ""peoples"" Earth Charter-a set of basic moral, ethical and spiritual principles which can be embraced by people of all religions and philosophies to guide their behaviour towards the earth and each other. I proposed this to the world leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit in 1992. But they were not ready for it. Literally millions of people around the world have now joined the movement applying it in their own lives and commending it to their leaders for their endorsement at the Sustainable Development Summit in Johannesburg next year. If it can motivate them to commit themselves to the change of course, which Rio failed to achieve, it could move the world out of the current environmental recession on to the pathway to a more secure and sustainable future.

The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by John A. Campion, Partner, Fasken Martineau DuMoulin, LLP and Past President, The Empire Club of Canada.

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Does the Environment Matter to Canada?


The speaker's thoughts on the current state of the environment, what this means to Canada, and what Canadians can do about it --at home and internationally. The Stockholm Conference of 1972 that put the environment on the international agenda; the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992; and other events. The continuing deterioration of the environment. The speaker's position on these issues. The doomsday scenario that is not inevitable. Warnings. Sustainable development, not yet conventional wisdom or common practice. Why the environment matters. Evidence for the recession in the political will to deal with the environmental issues which are essential to our future. The special stake that Canadians have in ensuring the health of the global environment. Canada's consumption of energy. Our lack of a viable plan to meet Kyoto targets. Some promising bright spots. Convincing the government. The performance of corporations and the behaviour of individuals as the key to sustainable development. The position of developing countries. Canada as the nation best positioned to take the lead. The local Agenda 21, based on the global Agenda 21 agreed at Rio and what this can mean. The 21st century as the decisive one for determining the future of the human species. The priorities of security and life support systems. Taking the prospect of doomsday seriously; remaining optimistic.