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Canada has biodiversity targets. Now it needs accountability

As the UN Convention on Biological Diversity creates new targets, the federal government must take action or risk another dismal report card

David Geselbracht’s writing can be found in The Globe and Mail, Maisonneuve, Canada’s National Observer, Grist and CBC.ca. He is completing a Juris Doctor degree at the University of Ottawa.

Stephen Hazell is counsel at Ecovision Law, and was the former Executive Director of both Sierra Club Canada and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

Every day Canadians rely on biodiversity: the rich variety of plants, animals and ecosystems that form the fabric of our cultures and the bedrock of our economies. The living soil that grows our vegetables, the timber that frames our homes, the fish plucked at sea — all represent a vast array of species Canadians depend on. 

But Canada’s biodiversity is being destroyed at an alarming rate. Habitat destruction, unsustainable use, pollution and climate change are leaving less for future generations. In Canada, between 1970 and 2014, mammal populations declined 43 per cent. Entire fisheries have completely or nearly collapsed: like the Atlantic cod in the east and the sockeye salmon in the west. And ancient trees, some over a thousand years old, are being decimated. This destruction of biodiversity, experts describe, is akin to “burning the library of life.” 

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If Canada is to protect and restore the vanishing life in its forests, grasslands and oceans, accountability must be a first step. Here is why. 

Much like our Paris climate target, Canada also has internationally prescribed targets for biodiversity protection. Named for the host region in Japan, where in 2010 the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity established them, there are 20 Aichi targets aimed at protecting species, lands and oceans, reducing water pollution and improving forest management, among other crucial actions. To date, Canada has achieved significant success on one: protecting 10 per cent of our coastal and marine areas by 2020. This was no small feat (only 1.3 percent was protected in 2015) and Canadians should be proud. 

However, Canada is struggling to meet the other targets. A 2018 progress report from Canada’s Environment Commissioner was searing. The federal government, it found, “had no plan for achieving Canada’s biodiversity targets,” and rather than being practical, the goals were too often “aspirational.” A final report on the federal government’s progress has yet to be released; but regardless, there needs to be more built-in accountability. 

To fix this, recent federal climate legislation may provide some inspiration. 

Canada’s climate goals also struggled with accountability issues. Previous governments would set targets with no real plan to actually meet them. But last June, Parliament passed Bill C-12 (the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act), which requires the federal government to set short and long-term climate targets, submit more frequent plans to meet those targets, report on progress to Parliament and utilize an advisory body to provide expert advice. Is it perfect? No. But it provides a layer of accountability that reluctant future administrations must address by law.

Canada needs similar accountability legislation for biodiversity. 

There are hurdles, of course. Protecting biodiversity is, in some ways, more complex than reducing emissions. There are far more targets on a wider range of areas — 20 Aichi targets rather than one Paris target. There are thorny jurisdictional and planning issues with the provinces. And any legislation would act as an umbrella to already existing provincial and federal laws — like the Species at Risk Act and the Migratory Birds Convention Act. Current actions are failing though, and, again and again, accountability has been identified as a limiting factor. 

To help protect species big and small, to create migration corridors, and to pass a legacy of biological diversity on to future generations, Canada needs accountability legislation for biodiversity. It would create clearer and more consistent target setting, progress reporting and the use of the best experts in the country, and it could spur greater collaboration between federal and provincial governments and Indigenous communities. 

As you read this article, nations are currently meeting to plan the next round of international biodiversity targets, organized through the Convention on Biological Diversity. The sad irony, of course, is that none were collectively reached for the last round (the Aichi targets), which had a deadline of 2020. Canada, as the second largest country on Earth, with vast webs of biological diversity, is well placed to take a lead in domestically implementing this next round of targets. But we should learn from past efforts. We must embed accountability into the process, through thoughtful legislation like Bill C-12.

Humans have always relied on the forests, waters, soils and species the planet provides us with. Biodiversity is the foundation of our prosperity. To ensure Canada stems the current loss of biodiversity, this incredible library of life, we must act with haste but also with humility. To translate goals from rhetoric to reality, we are going to need more accountability.   

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