Green Enigma

Trying to make sense of current prospects for the environment.

David is a very common first name, and Boyd is a reasonably common last name, but what is the chance of reviewing two different books about the environment by two different David R. Boyd’s, both of whom are environmental lawyers living on the West Coast? Or at least that was the conclusion that I inevitably drew when I read The Optimistic Environmentalist: Progressing Towards a Greener Future followed by Cleaner, Greener, Healthier: A Prescription for Stronger Canadian Environmental Laws and Policies.

The first book, as the title suggests, is a paean to the amazing progress we have made on the environment globally and the possibility of solving our major environmental problems, even the most difficult ones such as climate change, in our lifetimes. While The Optimistic Environmentalist’s David Boyd is quick to recognize that these fixes are in no way inevitable, he also makes it clear that positive outcomes are tantalizingly within our grasp. “The extent of the good news that I discovered while researching this book astonished me.” It is a message we do not hear much these days when most of the media makes it sound as though doom is pretty much inevitable.

The other David Boyd, the one who wrote Cleaner, Greener, Healthier: A Prescription for Stronger Canadian Environmental Laws and Policies, is not so upbeat. The first chapter, “A Neglected but Vital Issue,” is a litany of terrifying health risks that Canada’s lax environmental laws expose us to daily. The third sentence of the book kicks off on an appropriately doom-laden tone: “Canadians are exposed to environmental hazards that cause cancer, impair the normal development of children, interfere with respiratory, cardiovascular, reproductive, endocrine, immune, and nervous systems, and inflict damage on skin and organs.” And he is just warming up. The rest of the chapter, and much of the book, continues to list example after example of alarming health risks that we are exposed to daily, and the financial costs these impose on our healthcare system.

So imagine my surprise to find that this is in fact one and the same David R. Boyd. And while The Optimistic Environmentalist is a book about global environmental problems and Cleaner, Greener, Healthier is really about Canadian environmental policy, they do represent the bookends of the possible emotional reactions to our current environmental situation, which runs from optimism and even elation on one end to outright despair on the other.

But in truth, I am sympathetic to this strange dialectic. Being an environmentalist today is to be tossed back and forth between extreme pessimism and optimism. Seen from one angle, things have never been worse: species are going extinct at an alarming rate, forests are dwindling globally and greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to soar past levels that we used to think spelled likely planetary doom. And yet we have never been better positioned to remedy these problems than we are today. In particular, the climate challenge—which once seemed to be insurmountable—is now looking less daunting as the costs of solar power decline precipitously and the dirtiest forms of energy—such as coal and tar sands—are losing market share. Could we be somewhere close to a tipping point?

The goings-on in the political world only act to exaggerate this sense of gyrating from one extreme to another. In a single year, Canada has gone from a country governed by a party that barely recognized climate change is even a problem to one that has put it on the front burner and made it a priority. And most Canadians live in provinces with clear carbon-pricing systems and where governments are committed to real action. And then there is Alberta … Has there been any political transformation so dramatic in the history of this country? I doubt there has.

And so in light of the facts, perhaps being bipolar on the environmental question is the sanest and most logical position for a Canadian environmentalist. At one pole is the alarmist, who understands that things are truly not well and that our current course is not likely to fix it. At the other pole is the optimist, who understands that we have all the tools that we need and with some reasonable readjustment we could fix it. The two poles play off one another: it is only in the depths of pessimism that one can get truly excited at the prospect that we might just save ourselves. And only one who imagines that it is possible that we could save ourselves would deeply despair at our failure to do so.

If G. Bruce Doern, Graeme Auld and Christopher Stoney, the authors of Green-Lite: Complexity in Fifty Years of Canadian Environmental Policy, Governance and Democracy, can be charted on this spectrum from optimism to pessimism, they would fall somewhere between the centre and the pessimistic side of the ledger. The authors are three well-known academic commentators on environmental issues. Their aim here is to survey Canadian environmental legislation over the last 35 years through four federal governments (Trudeau, Mulroney, Chrétien/Martin, Harper)—two Liberal, two Conservative. They draw a range of conclusions, the principal being that Canada’s record of environmental progress has been somewhat lukewarm throughout. Despite moments of progress—they mention in particular the Mulroney government’s 1990 Green Plan, with Quebec environment minister Lucien Bouchard playing an unlikely federal hero of the environment—the overall story is one of backsliding, missed opportunities and confusion. None of this is very new; most observers, even relatively uninformed ones, would know and agree that Canada’s actual progress on most environmental issues is lukewarm at best. But the book does help to provide context for and explain some of the root causes of our failure as a country to put forward meaningful and effective environmental legislation.

Doern, Auld and Stoney contend that competing pressures for environmental progress, often from economic demands and particularly as they relate to resource extraction, have made achieving environmental progress difficult in this country. The formulation of sustainable development makes the environment at best one leg of a three-legged stool—the others being economic and social—and usually the weak leg at that.

But it strikes me that it is not just the environment that comes up short. We often create unintended social and economic problems when we shortchange the environment. It is clear that the Harper government’s extraordinary coddling of the resource sector was ultimately more harmful than helpful. Like loving parents who smother their own child, Harper went out of the way to coddle the industry again and again by doing things such as curtailing scientific oversight, disembowelling environmental legislation, attacking environmental non-governmental organizations and using his foreign policy effectively as a lobbying arm of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. But the end result of all of that love was an industry that is in worse shape today than it has perhaps ever been before: loathed internationally, uncompetitive and unready for low oil prices, unable to get its product to market, bloated and overstretched, bleeding jobs and dollars at an unprecedented rate. In the end, the Harper government’s coddling was the worst thing to happen to the Canadian oil industry. Other sectors that were overlooked by the Harper government may have been praying that he would not get around to helping them.

Green-Lite perpetuates an assumption that environmental progress is in some ways opposed to economic interests. And to be fair, in the context that the book’s authors are considering, which is the view of the politicians who set environmental policy decisions, it is the case that it is very often perceived that way. But this assumption should be questioned, for it rarely squares with reality. This is most obviously true (but not only true, as I will discuss in a moment) in the case of environmental collapse. When a resource collapses, or when it becomes in some way environmentally unsustainable, it almost always comes at the cost of economic opportunity too.

It is strange how often the economic impacts of environmental policies are overlooked. For a hundred years, political economists have warned about the risks of the Canadian economy being overly reliant on resources. The acclaimed Harold Innis gave name to the staples thesis, which stated that Canada’s economy was at risk of cyclonic shifts that could cause economic pain. These cyclonic shifts included things such as trade pressure and commodity price volatility. This was a lesson we forget to learn, again and again it seems. And so while the price of oil climbed, the Harper government went all-in on oil. Innis could have warned it of the consequences of that decision, if it had wanted to listen.

For me the ultimate reason for optimism—and one that could unite these three books—is that it is in our economic self-interest to solve our environmental problems. This connection is made repeatedly—and persuasively—in Cleaner, Greener, Healthier, where Boyd cites study after study showing that investments in environmental policies have huge financial paybacks. For example, every dollar invested in reducing diesel pollution saves as much as $28 in health costs, and regulations forcing pollution reductions from power plants have a 25-times payback. The author cites dozens of such examples.

These instances may sound surprising, but it is a general notion that we have known for some time. Although environmental regulations can cost certain industries in the short term, in the long term they are most often economically beneficial. Strangely this is not true just for the overall economy, but it is often true for the firms that are being regulated themselves. This strange phenomenon led to the groundbreaking work of Harvard business professor Michael Porter in the 1990s and has been called the Porter hypothesis, which states that environmental regulation can actually improve economic competitiveness. Porter arrived at this position when he reviewed what happens to individual firms after legislation is imposed upon them. In case after case what happened was an increase in profitability, which he attributes to what he terms the “ingenuity effect.” When firms are forced to innovate to reduce pollution and emissions, they very often find new ways of operating that also have a positive impact on their bottom line. Porter’s research turned the relationship between the environment and the economy on its head. Environmental regulation does not hurt the economy; it helps the economy!

One wonders, had the Harper government actually imposed real regulations on the oil industry, would the oil sands be in a better competitive position today? Of course, we will never know the answer to the question, but one can only imagine that would have resulted in investment to increase the efficiency of the projects that would have made the industry more competitive and would have made it easier for Canadian oil to get to markets.

The lesson is that economics and the environment are intrinsically intertwined. You cannot get ahead economically by ignoring the environment; it just does not operate that way. This is true even of climate change. The groundbreaking work of Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, helped to further establish this unexpected positive feedback between economic realities and environmental effects of tackling climate change.

The economic argument for reducing pollution is in my mind the winning one. People may be inclined to ignore the environment if they feel it will hurt their job prospects and their family’s ­livelihoods; but when they know the opposite is true, the case for pollution goes away. The thought that this idea might catch on is a real reason for optimism, one that might still save us from ecological peril.