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Federal Government’s Flashy “National Conservation Plan“ Lacks Plan, Conservationists Say

“Our plan is working, thanks to our Prime Minister’s strong leadership on the environment,” states a new sleek ‘fact sheet’ released to the public after the federal government announced a new National Conservation Plan (NCP) last week.

The Harper government is committing five years and $252 million to the NCP, an initiative they say is aimed at conserving land, restoring ecosystems, and connecting Canadians to nature.

"Our Government is committed to working closely with Canadians so that together we can provide effective stewardship of Canada’s rich natural heritage for present and future generations," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement.

"The National Conservation Plan will help ensure the sustainability of our nation’s greatest resources, contribute to our country’s long-term prosperity and further position Canada as a world leader in conservation. It will also help ensure that Canadian families and visitors can enjoy the beauty of our country from coast to coast to coast for years to come," he said.

The rollout of the conservation plan has been accompanied by a substantial public outreach campaign, including an email from Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq encouraging Canadians to get their own “free fact sheet” to “ learn more about what PM Harper and the Conservative Government have done to protect our natural heritage.”

Short on substance

The ‘fact sheet’ claims Canada is a “world leader in clean energy production,” investing “more than $10 billion in green infrastructure, energy efficiency, and clean energy since 2006.”

According to Simon Dyer, regional director for Alberta and the North at the Pembina Institute, "Canada's investments in clean energy per capita are significantly less than U.S. or Europe." A significant amount of money is being directed to carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects, while the federal government has cancelled its Ecoenergy programs for efficiency and renewable energy, "which is a big gap," Dyer told DeSmog Canada.

And although the Ontario government has successfully phased out coal, Dyer said federal rules allow some Canadian coal plants to operate as late as 2062.

Prominent conservation groups are calling the government's plan into question, saying a more clear and rigorous strategy needs to be put into place. The federal government also needs to lay out how action on climate change will factor into the conservation picture, they say.

“Preserving land…without reducing greenhouse gas emissions is public relations, not conservation,” John Bennett from the Sierra Club said.

“We do need to preserve much more of nature but it is more complicated [than just] putting up a no trespassing sign.”

Alison Woodley, national director for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Parks Program, told DeSmog Canada there is “potential for progress” in the announcement of the NCP but how the plan will be implemented remains unclear.

“It is not clear how this announcement will enable Canada to meet its international commitment to protect at least 17 per cent of our land and 10 per cent of our oceans by 2020,” Woodley said. Canada currently protects 10 per cent of land and 1 per cent of Canadian waters.

“We desperately need a nation-wide, science-based plan to get there, and the federal government should be leading this effort. Yet this was not part of the announcement,” Woodley told DeSmog Canada.

Climate change is making nature conservation a more urgent issue, according to Woodley.

“We need to ensure that much more of our lands and waters are protected, and that these areas are connected together so wildlife can move through the land and seascape as they adapt to changing conditions,” she said.  

The conservation of Canada’s park land has an important role to play in addressing climate change.

“Conserving natural areas can also help with efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, by storing carbon and by buffering against extreme weather events like flooding and storm surges,” Woodley added.

Éric Hérbert-Daly, national executive director of CPAWS wrote it was “shocking” to see the government’s plan offered no support for National Parks. As DeSmog Canada recently reported, federal funding cuts to Parks Canada has left many of Canada’s national parks unattended, with little to no research being conducted on an ongoing basis, even in regions harshly affected by the pine beetle epidemic.

“National parks are the federal government’s flagship conservation tools that are beloved by Canadians,” Hérbert-Daly said. “A national conservation plan that ignores our national parks has an enormous gap.”

The Conservative government's 'fact sheet.'

A new 'environmental' brand for the Harper Government?

In 2012 Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, an internationally binding climate change agreement, and made major cuts to science programs and research at both Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The funding cuts, coupled with strict communications procedures that prevent scientists from speaking freely with the media, have been cited as evidence of the Harper government’s “war on science.”

As Andy Radia from Yahoo Canada News points out, the Conservative’s rebranding exercise makes sense, given how poorly the party is perceived when it comes to environmental policy.

As a potential sign of more aggressive environmental campaigning to come, Radia points to a much-publicized speech Conservative thought-leader Preston Manning gave at the Manning Conference earlier this year:

While conservatives are generally seen to be competent on the economy, we continue to be seen as defensive and weak on the environment. In our Quebec poll, for example, perceived weakness on the environment was given as the number one policy reason for not supporting conservative parties.

Of course, what is most exasperating is that this need not be so. I know, you know, all kinds of people – especially ranchers, farmers, loggers, fishers, hunters, hikers, out-door people who either work or recreate in close communion with their physical environment – who are fiscal or social conservatives and environmental conservationists all at the same time. They hold all of these commitments and positions in common.

And this shouldn’t surprise us. Conservative and conservation come from the same root. Living within our means financially is easily and logically extendable to living within our means ecologically. And market mechanisms, which conservatives prefer to excessive regulation by governments, can just as readily be harnessed to environmental protection as to economic development.

But this perceived weakness on the environmental front needs to be more seriously addressed if conservative support is to be broadened, especially among the young. The philosophical and policy means for doing so exist in the growing body of literature and activity on the “green conservative” theme. And the appointment of Leona Aglukkaq as Canada’s Environment Minister is a most positive and welcome step as the Arctic, with which she is intimately identified, is seen by many Canadians as the place to make a “fresh start on the environment” and the better management of the environment/economy interface.

Ultimately, says Woodley, the government has to make good on the promise to conserve Canada’s green spaces.

“The announcement was just that, an announcement – with a list of investments, but no details about what they are meant to achieve,” she said. 

“It is not clear if they are going to now create a plan with clear goals and objectives and strategies to achieve these. We hope there is something more comprehensive coming, but the announcement didn't mention anything along those lines.”

Image Credit: Prime Minister Stephen Harper announcing the NCP. Photo courtesy of the Prime Minister's website.

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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