Canada's environmental standards lagging, advisory panel says

Research by the soon-to-be axed National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy warns that Canada is behind on international business standards for greener technologies, as well as emissions standards to reduce the climate change impact of long-term infrastructure.

Soon-to-close round table releases two studies critical of federal environment standards

National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy CEO David McLaughlin, seen here during a 2009 news conference, warns that Canada is behind in regulating emissions standards and implementing business standards for greener technologies. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

New research by a soon-to-be axed environmental advisory group warns that Canada is falling behind on international business standards for greener technologies, as well as emissions standards to reduce the climate change impact of long-term infrastructure.

The world is moving to a new business standard for being green, but Canada is not moving along with it -- to our detriment, warns the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. 

More and more countries are demanding that their imports meet environmental standards.

"In France they have a draft law that would look at having carbon footprints on products before they come into the country," round table president David McLaughlin told CBC News on Wednesday. "That means that a country or company that is exporting to France would have to have detailed and verifiable information."

"Most companies don't demand that kind of information and here in Canada we don't look at that," McLaughlin said. "Consumers are demanding that the environmental consequences be made more transparent and visible."

The report says Canada's competitiveness and reputation in global trade are at stake.

'Life cycle' costs

The report is in response to a request from Environment Minister Peter Kent. He asked the advisory group to look at the need for a "life cycle" approach to production in Canada -- a systematic way of measuring the environmental impact of a good or service, from conception to consumption.

The researchers found that Europe has a life-cycle approach in many parts of its private and public sectors, and the United States is increasingly adopting such an outlook.

Canada, however, has no standards or tools for measuring environmental impacts, nor does it have any guidelines for eco-labelling. Instead, individual companies are taking initiatives in a fragmented way.

Canada's trading partners could erect barriers to Canadian goods and services unless Canadian accounting of environmental impact meets foreign standards, the report warns.

McLaughlin told CBC News that businesses "are very worried about this trend internationally."

"These are becoming new forms of trade restrictions that will create economic market hazards for us," he said.

Indeed, Ottawa is already in a dispute with the European Parliament over its attempts to designate Canadian bitumen too dirty for Europe's fuel quality rules.

Ottawa's response has been to lobby hard for Canadian oil and wave international trade rules at European leaders in an attempt to get them to back down.

The report recommends setting up a database for the private and public sectors that would detail international trade and market access requirements.

Emissions regulations needed sooner

In a second study, the round table finds that delays in regulating greenhouse gas emissions mean Canada is quickly locking in old-fashioned infrastructure that will fill the air with carbon for decades to come, new research shows.

The longer the federal government waits to clamp down on emissions and business continues as usual, the more difficult and costly it becomes to meet environmental targets, the research concludes.

This report is the first time analysts have measured the country's shrinking room to manoeuvre as a result of investments made while businesses wait for governments to crack down on emissions.

The research also shows that electricity could be the salvation, as long as that sector can attract huge investment.

The research was presented by the round table's president, David McLaughlin, at a conference earlier this month. His slide presentation was obtained by The Canadian Press.

"We have said consistently that delay is costly," McLaughlin said.

Now, he says, the research shows just how costly. His charts and graphs show that as Ottawa waits to implement regulations on emitters, investment in coal, oil, gas, electricity and buildings will be guided by the high-emission standards which have been the norm.

The effects could be felt for decades, since the life-span of much infrastructure is about 40 years -- compounding the stock of emissions already in the atmosphere.

So any infrastructure built after the new regulations eventually come into place will have to be extra-efficient in order to make up for the delays of the past, McLaughlin said.

"The more and more of those (locked-in) investments that are made, the less and less options they (governments) have for actually finding emissions reductions in the economy," explained Alex Wood, senior director at Sustainable Prosperity, the think-tank that hosted the conference where McLaughlin presented his findings.

"And with less and less options available, they become more expensive."

2020 targets 'unlikely', 2050 targets 'possible'

There is a growing consensus that Ottawa's regulatory approach is moving too slowly to meet the government's 2020 target to reduce emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels. Last week, the federal environment commissioner's audit of the government's regulations confirmed that reaching the target would be "unlikely."

So far, Ottawa's regulations have tackled just one sector out of eight.

The Round Table research focuses on how Canada can meet its 2050 targets instead. Canada and other G8 countries have committed to cutting emissions to 65 per cent below 2005 levels by that year.

It's possible that Canada could meet this target, McLaughlin said, but the longer Ottawa waits to put a clear price on carbon, the harder and more costly it will be.

The lack of clear details on what the federal government will expect has already caused casualties, added Wood.

Two major, emissions-friendly developments have recently collapsed, mainly because Ottawa has not put forward enough information about how its carbon regime will function, Wood said.

Investors pulled out of the Pioneer carbon-capture and storage project in Alberta, despite having $779 million in federal and provincial subsidies. Ottawa-based Iogen cancelled plans for a biofuel plant in Manitoba.

Soon to close

The emissions research will be included in one of the advisory body's final reports, to be published in a few weeks.

Although the agency was formed to give advice and research on sustainable development, the government has largely ignored the agency's advice in the past.

The round table, an independent body whose directors were named by the Conservative government, has less than a year left to live after its funding was cut in the 2012 federal budget.

Kent initially said the funding was cut because the round table's research is replicated in universities and think-tanks, and is readily available on the Internet.

But Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, a former environment minister, said this week the agency is being shut down because the government disagrees fundamentally with its advice.

with files from CBC News