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Canada: Environmental Loser at Home and Abroad

In the coming days, the world's leaders will gather in Rio de Janeiro to seek renewed commitment to the principles of sustainable development. The Rio+20 hasn't received a lot of Canadian attention, and for good reason: A federal budget bill which contains over 100 pages dedicated to weakening environmental legislation and oversight has just been passed by parliament.

In the coming days, the world's leaders will gather in Rio de Janeiro to seek renewed commitment to the principles of sustainable development, in part, by embracing the notion of the green economy.

The conference, dubbed Rio+20 because it comes on the 20th anniversary of the historic Earth Summit held in Rio in 1992, hasn't exactly received a great deal of attention here in Canada. And for good reason: Canadian environmentalists have been consumed in a all-out struggle to halt, alter, or at the very least draw attention to the largest rollback in environmental legislation in over 20 years.

At the time of writing, a federal budget bill which contains over a hundred pages dedicated to weakening environmental legislation and oversight has been passed by parliament.

Among other things, the omnibus bill has gutted the federal Environmental Assessment Act, placed strict timelines on environmental reviews, and stripped the national energy board of its power to stop energy projects that are not in the national interest, regardless of their impacts.

It also undermines the Fisheries Act and withdraws funding from many important initiatives such as the experimental lakes and the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy. Finally, it includes provisions intended to intimate and silence critics, especially environmental charities. The charities, including Environmental Defence, have been pushing back.

In light of all this, it's understandable that Canadians haven't paid a lot of attention to the upcoming summit in Rio. We're fighting a ground war here and, to be honest, these international fora have not exactly yielded great results in recent years. Foremost, they have been unable to draft a successor to the Kyoto Protocol.

But I would argue that the failure of these talks actually means we should pay them more attention, not less, because Canada has been instrumental in their failure.

We are the only country to ratify Kyoto and then withdraw, as our government formally did late last year. And we have been obstructing efforts to craft a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. For our efforts, Canada has been awarded the "Fossil of the year award" five years running -- and it's not only climate change. We have also blocked other global initiatives, such the efforts to ban or restrict asbestos, a known carcinogen.

Sadly, the Canadian delegation will attend Rio+20 in this same spirit. According to a leaked document, Canada plans to block attempts to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, rather than joining with others, such as the European Union, who are calling for a firm commitment to a full phase-out.

Yes, Canada isn't only rolling back environmental protections here at home, but we are peddling our anti-environmental ways across the world.

Even though we are consumed with challenges here at home, we must remember that, although unwieldy, these international talks are an important part of any effort to deal with global environmental issues.

They may be largely stalled at present, but these international summits have led to important outcomes in the past. In fact, the Earth Summit held in Rio 20 years ago was one of the most significant events for the global environmental movement. It gave rise to The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development; spawned the Convention on Biological Diversity; and led to The Framework Convention on Climate Change which, in turn, gave rise to the Kyoto Protocol.

Once, Canada was a leader in this area. For example, we played a key role in winning support for the Montreal Protocol, which has gone a long way toward protecting the ozone layer.

We can be a leader again, rather than an obstacle to global progress. And if our government were to heed the will of the Canadian public, success in Rio would be that much more likely.

Unfortunately, this week, it's unlikely to go down that way.

While the world's leaders gather to chart a path towards the future we want, here in Canada we're busy turning back the clock by 20 years and undoing the progress we have made.

There is reason for hope though. Things will change. The pendulum always swings back.

Rest assured that we'll keep pushing our leaders in an effort to see that backswing happen sooner rather than later.

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