Science·Analysis

Canada, host of the UN biodiversity summit, is struggling to meet its own targets

An independent report is calling out Canada's track record on protecting vulnerable species just two months before the country is set to host a UN summit on biodiversity. Canada, like most of the world, is failing to do enough to protect nature. Will COP15 be a turning point?

The land of the great outdoors isn't doing so great at protecting its great outdoors

Woodland caribou are among Canada's 841 at risk species. This mother and calf are part of the last remaining caribou living south of the St. Lawrence River, members of the herd of about 50 in Quebec's Gaspésie National Park. (Frederic Lesmerises/submitted)

It was the spring of 2014, and practically everyone and their grandma was dancing to Pharrell Williams's catchy upbeat tune Happy, so perhaps then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper could be forgiven for feeling overly optimistic.

His hopeful promise, announced at a May news conference in New Maryland, N.B., was that by 2020 Canada would protect 17 per cent of its land and inland waters, and 10 per cent of marine and coastal areas. At the time, 10.5 per cent of land and only one per cent of marine area was protected.

Fast forward to 2022, federal governments have changed and those pre-pandemic days may feel like a distant memory, but one thing that remains constant is that Canada continues to struggle to meet its own biodiversity goals.

Biodiversity refers to the variety of different kinds of life that exists in a habitat — all the plants and animals that rely on one other in the delicate balance of an ecosystem.

It's declining at unprecedented rates globally, which threatens not only wildlife and natural spaces, but also human food security and genetic resources necessary for medicine and science.

When it comes to protecting the land and water that house those natural assets, the latest data show Canada is coming up short. 

This past week, a report submitted by the nonpartisan Office of the Auditor General of Canada called out the federal government's lack of progress. 

Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Jerry DeMarco scrutinized Ottawa's track record and "failure to take sufficient steps to address the loss of biological diversity" in his remarks

"I would say that Canada has always been a leader — on paper — in terms of biodiversity," DeMarco said.

"But in terms of results, they have been sorely lacking."

COP15: A turning point for the world and Canada? 

Despite strides forward, Canada failed to meet its 2020 national Aichi targets set by Harper under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

That's not to say that the country hasn't made some progress. By the end of 2021, 13.5 percent of land and freshwater and 13.9 per cent of marine territory was protected — certainly an improvement since 2014, especially in terms of marine conservation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vows his government will be able to surpass those targets to conserve 25 per cent of lands and oceans by 2025, and 30 per cent by 2030.

Southern resident killer whales, seen here swimming off Tofino, B.C., in 2019, are severely endangered with only about 74 individuals left. (John Forde and Jennifer Steven)

Momentum is gaining, according to a senior official with the office of Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault. In a conversation with CBC news, they said that hitting the 2025 goal is still doable — though ambitious — and requires the collaboration of provinces, territories and Indigenous partners. 

That footnote is key: it's no small feat to negotiate conservation measures for species who are entitled to federal protection, but live on land belonging to provincial, territorial or Indigenous governments.

This December, international delegates will gather in Montreal to negotiate the successor to the UN Aichi targets to protect nature for the next decade. One of the key global targets will be conserving at least 30 per cent of land and oceans by 2030. 

As the country prepares to host the fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity in just a couple of months, the pressure is on for Canada to lead with results and not just rhetoric.

More flora and fauna in peril than ever 

Since 1978 species in Canada considered at risk — flora and fauna — have steadily increased. 

A total of 841 species are designated at risk by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. The list ranges from the timber rattlesnakes, no longer found in the wild in Canada, to the endangered beluga whales of the St. Lawrence Estuary. 

"It's not all Canada's fault, obviously," DeMarco said. 

"Most of our species are shared with the United States and other countries … but it's a global crisis and Canada needs to do its part."

Instead, progress has stalled, according to DeMarco's analysis.

One of the reports published by his office highlights that, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada's own performance indicators, the number of at-risk species on the road to recovery hasn't improved since 2014 — hovering at 42 per cent. 

That means Canada is on track to miss yet another biodiversity goal — achieving progress toward the recovery of 60 per cent of species at risk by 2025.

The glass half full argument is that at least species recovery isn't getting worse. 

But if Canada is serious about addressing the decline in biodiversity and meeting its 25 per cent by 2025 goal, it needs to find a way to move the needle — especially in terms of the amount of land that is protected.

A powerful, little-used tool that could change the game

It's not that the federal government doesn't acknowledge there's more work to do.

"Perhaps it was slower in the earlier years, but now we have those budgets that are actually required to set outside giant swaths of land," Oliver Anderson, Minister Guilbeault's director of communications, told CBC News.

Anderson said federal investment, including $2.3 billion promised over five years in the 2021 budget, helped get the ball rolling.

As for why, during the Liberal's hold on power since 2015, the recovery of at risk species has not improved? 

"I think you're seeing increased urgency on it," he answered.

"It does require funding. It does require territorial and provincial will. It does require an [environment] minister who is prepared to actually use [The Species at Risk Act]."

That legislation has several tools in it — rarely used weapons in the country's arsenal of species protection powers.

The act, known as SARA, allows Ottawa to step in and intervene if it deems a province is not doing enough to protect a species at risk, or if a species faces an imminent threat to survival.

"You see a reluctance on the part of the federal government ... to step in and essentially lift up its elbows and make sure that biodiversity is being taken care of," DeMarco said. 

"It's been a very hands-off approach and a very bureaucratic approach to what should be legislation that could accomplish its lofty goal of protecting and recovering species at risk."

Environmental groups have even tried to challenge the federal government in court, arguing it violated the Species at Risk Act when it approved the Trans Mountain pipeline by increasing the risk of extinction for the severely endangered southern resident orcas. The Supreme Court dismissed the case.

Jerry DeMarco, Canada's commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, says the federal government has struggled to translate lofty promises into results. (Submitted by Jerry DeMarco)

Canada's activist-turned-environment minister has signalled more of a willingness to use the legislation than his predecessors. 

In 2021 Guilbault issued an emergency order to stop a development in Longueuil, Que. from encroaching on the habitat of a threatened frog. Then this spring, he threatened to use the act to protect woodland caribou, before backing off when the Quebec government agreed to collaborate. 

Ottawa may soon be forced to use SARA more aggressively if it wants to protect endangered species from further decline and provinces refuse to act. But wading into a federal-provincial jurisdictional battle risks opening a whole can of worms that could cause even further delays. 

The lesson of the passenger pigeon

Observers hope the attention surrounding COP15 will be what's needed to make the world — and Canada — buckle down on preserving biodiversity 

DeMarco hopes the country will act before more species go the way of the now-extinct passenger pigeon, once abundant across much of southeastern Canada, driven to the brink by hunting and habitat destruction caused by European settlers.

"People were in denial … They thought [the birds] must have gone somewhere else," DeMarco said. 

"But they weren't somewhere else. They were disappearing."

The last passenger pigeon was named Martha. She died in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.

The bird is just one of 19 Canadian species known to be extinct — 17 animals including the Great auk, Dawson caribou, the Ungava grizzly bear, and the Labrador duck — as well as a type of mollusc, and a moss.

A female, left, and male passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) on display at the Royal Ontario Museum. The last passenger pigeon died in 1914 after unsuccessful attempts to breed in captivity. (Brian Boyle/ROM)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jaela Bernstien

Journalist

Jaela Bernstien is a Montreal-based journalist who covers stories about climate change and human rights for CBC News. She has a decade of experience and files regularly for web, radio and TV. She won a CAJ award as part of a team investigating black-market labour in Quebec. You can reach her at jaela.bernstien@cbc.ca

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