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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 1996

Liberals Yet to Prove Commitment to Green Plan

Keith Haysom
Historically Canadian universities have been pioneers in environmental research, and they welcomed the decision of the Mulroney government to develop in a large scale the Green Plan as announced in December 1990.

The government of the day was reacting to the high level of public concern about the environment. The plan was intended to rank with the other major Tory policy initiatives as its initial allocation of $3 billion indicated. But it was not long before the government began to retreat, scaling down the plan in the budgets of 1992 and 1993.

Nevertheless, under the leadership of Jean Charest, the Department of the Environment launched a series of initiatives. Some of these involved funding for university environmental science research. For example:

The Environmental Innovation Program (EIP), launched in 1992 to promote innovation outside the government. Since 1992 EIP has awarded 82 contracts, 19 of them to post-secondary institutions.

The Environmental Technology Commercialization Program designed "to accelerate the transfer, development, demonstration and commercialization of environmental technologies through co- operative arrangements with universities, research institutions and the private sector."

The Globe Change Program, which was already in existence, produced extra money for university research in both the natural and human sciences.

The Eco-Research Program, created in 1991 and administered by SSHRCC, with a budget of $20 million over five years, involved the creation of a set of university chairs with the intention that the chairs should have a full slate of scholarships and strategic grants at their disposal.

Research Program on Economic Instruments, introduced in 1993 and geared to university research, with a budget of $1.2 million over four years.

Tory interest in the environment peaked in 1992 with the International Earth Conference in Rio de Janeiro, and fell away rapidly thereafter as the economy became the major concern. There had also been considerable resistance, according to Professor Glen Toner of Carleton University, from within the bureaucracy. Both the Departments of Finance and of Industry were opposed to the Green Plan, and, as the cabinet lost interest, the bureaucratic resistance became more effective.

The Liberals in Opposition

As Official Opposition, the Liberals repeatedly criticized the government for its lack of consistent commitment to environmental protection. The Liberals condemned the Green Plan, even in its original inception, as inadequate and toothless.

On Mar. 30, 1990, Sheila Copps moved that the Commons condemn "the government for its lack of a sincere commitment to the environment and for it vacuous discussion paper which completely fails to offer the concrete action that all Canadians would like to see implemented and, therefore, (we) call on the government to end the rhetoric and to introduce a truly substantial environmental action plan."

Paul Martin, the Liberal's critic on the environment, said "environmental protection is a moral value" and that it is "virtually impossible to have a strong economy unless one takes into account the needs of the ecosystem." He once went so far as to say that "we (the Liberal Party) are the only party willing to defend 'green' concepts in the world."

In addition, the Liberals repeatedly urged the government to spend more on environmental research and development. On Mar. 16, 1990, John Manley, commenting on cuts to NSERC's funding of university research, asked: "Why are we not opening our doors to scientists from all over the world, telling them that if they want to make a contribution in environmental technologies, Canada is the place to do it, that Canada will fund and welcome them?"

The Liberals in Power

The Liberal landslide in 1993 therefore offered new hopes of a revitalization of the Green Plan and environmental protection. Indeed, the Liberal Red Book dedicated a chapter to the subject of sustainable development, in which it is stated that "sustainable development...fits in the Liberal tradition of social investment as sound economic policy."

To this end, the Liberals commit themselves to, among other things, promoting "the research, development and implementation of clean and energy-efficient technologies" and state that "A Liberal government will commit 25 per cent of all new government funding for research and development to technologies that substantially reduce the harmful effects of industrial activities on the environment, or that specifically enhance the environment."

The Red Book, it is true, makes little mention of the Green Plan, but it does state that "several features of the Liberal's sustainable development program go beyond the promises made in the Green Plan."

The Liberals have, by and large, remained consistent to their Red Book commitments, at least as far as sustainable development goes. Environment Canada's 1995/96 Strategic Outlook credits the Liberals with implementing "the vast majority" of its promises, among others the proclamation of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, renewal of the earlier Tory agreement to clean the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River of pollutants, and the launching of the Canadian Environmental Industries Strategy to "foster the growth of Canada's emerging environmental industry."

The Liberals have also followed through on the implementation of two conventions signed by Charest's Team Canada at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Conference in 1992, the Climate Change and Biodiversity Conventions. While negotiations over the Climate Change Convention continue, the government-established Biodiversity Working Group released the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy: Canada's Response to the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1995.

The Liberals have also carried out their Red Book promise to establish a multi-stakeholder task force (of government, industry, academia and environmental groups) to "conduct a comprehensive baseline study of federal taxes, grants and subsidies, in order to identify barriers and disincentives to sound environmental practices."

As regards the university community, the Liberals initially maintained the Global Change Program and the Environment Innovation Program. They have also recently established the Climate Research Network "to engage the energy, ideas and talents of the universities and the private sector in addressing critical scientific questions relating to climate variability." The Climate Research Network currently involves more than 75 researchers and 16 universities across Canada.

On the other hand, the Liberals cancelled any new funding for the Eco-Research Program (a Green Plan initiative) in 1994. Though the program still exists and retains a significant budget (over $10 million for 1995-96), its funds remain available only for commitments made prior to the February 1994 budget. The Environmental Innovation Program finds itself in a similar situation, with its original funding already fully committed, leaving no money available for new contracts between now and it termination date of Mar. 31, 1997.

The Eco-Research Program currently funds 10 different research grants, five university research chairs and 89 research fellowships. Furthermore, while the Liberals maintained the Tory- instituted University-based Research Program on Economic Instruments, they have spent only $700,000 on a program that was supposed to have a $1.2 million budget, and declined to renew it beyond its 1997 sunset.

Program Review and Budget Cuts

In 1994, five per cent was cut out of the DOE's budget as part of the across-the-board budget reductions but the Green Plan funds were exempted, thanks to lobbying by Sheila Copps.

However, 1994 also saw the launch of the government-wide program review which culminated in the 1995 budget. The review brought significant cuts to the DOE. The 1995 budget cut $234 million (31.8 per cent) out of the its budget over three years. By 1994 the department will have lost 1,400 employees or 25 per cent of its workforce. It intends to offset these cuts by increased use of information technologies. It also decided to refocus its activities on global and national ecosystems and to increase its emphasis on partners.

Of specific interest to environmental science programs in the universities were the following decisions:

  • funding for the DOE Statement of the Environment Report was virtually eliminated; and
  • the research funding base of the department for both internal and external research was cut by 35 per cent.

It is not known where the focus of these cuts will be and, as a consequence, the effect on environmental science in the universities cannot be accurately measured.

The future is uncertain. The government has been negotiating with the provinces to off-load federal responsibilities in this area. It is impossible at the moment to know what this will mean for the future of environmental research in Canada and whether the high profile role of the universities in this area will be sustained.

The Liberals argue that environmental scientists have a friend in Paul Martin, who after all designed the Red Book and its section on the environment. It remains to be seen.

Keith Haysom is a Political Science student at Dalhousie University.