Thank you, Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, members of the committee.
I am accompanied by my deputy minister, Mr. Ian Shugart. It's a pleasure to be here, and I very much look forward to working with the committee. It's a very impressive group of parliamentarians on the committee, and I look forward to our continued efforts together as parliamentarians.
This is my first appearance before the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development, and as those who have come before me, I endeavour to be forthcoming about my priorities as the minister and helpful in informing the committee of the department's work.
Since this is my first opportunity to address you in this setting, I'd like to take a few moments to talk briefly about what I feel we need to concentrate on as a department, as a government, and as a country, and to make sure we make true progress in our efforts to protect the environment. These are in fact challenging times.
In the past few years, issues of environmental concern have dominated headlines like never before, and only recently, as the world slowly comes to grips with an increasingly alarming economic crisis, have these stories been bumped from the front pages.
But contrary to what some may think, environmental headlines that sporadically fall out of sight do not push environmental issues out of mind.
The environment remains a priority for our government, and we fully expect to be held to account—as we were last week—no matter what the headlines say in the daily papers.
The tabling of the federal Environment Commissioner's latest report generated what I think is some important discussion about government spending, but also about how we set standards for our programs.
I think Commissioner Vaughan does some valuable work that can be helpful, and I appreciated the opportunity I had to meet with him last week to discuss the contents of his report.
If anything, the focus that was put on the report should remind us that despite losing ground to what some might call more pressing issues, the environment still remains top-of-mind for many of us.
Mr. Chair, I want to assure the committee, and by extension, all Canadians, that even under the backdrop of tumultuous economic times... and even if environmental headlines aren't always above the fold, Canada's government is fully committed to the environment.
We saw as much just over two weeks ago with a budget that contained a large green stimulus package, in the form of over $2 million worth of significant, environment-related investments.
Mr. Chair, this considerable financial commitment to the environment builds on our government's solid environmental record. Certainly, it was not unexpected given the tremendous gains we have made with respect to the environment since coming into office back in early 2006.
At the time, we inherited a flatlining patchwork of underwhelming environmental programs that were delivering well below expectations. Today, the government has a structured plan of action that is delivering real results.
At the time, greenhouse gas emissions were on a dramatic upturn, rising from 17% above Kyoto targets in 1998 to 35% above targets in 2006. Today, we are on our way to meeting our objectives of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020.
Progress, Mr. Chair, has come due to a well-thought-out and well-defined plan that we have adhered to carefully and adjusted when necessary.
Our accomplishments are many, and run the gamut in terms of how they relate to the environment. Among other things, we have invested in enforcement, so additional officers can be on the ground, ensuring that pollution and wildlife protection laws and regulations are respected.
We have also introduced a Vehicle Scrappage Program that will take older, more pollution-prone vehicles off the road.
We have made a significant financial commitment—upwards of $200 million—to clean up contaminated sites across Canada.
We have also established new National Wildlife Areas and have purchased ecologically significant land across the nation, all in the name of protecting our landscapes and the species that inhabit them.
We have taken action to protect our lakes and rivers and oceans, with cleanups either underway or scheduled to take place on Lake Simcoe, Lake Winnipeg and the Great Lakes, among others.
And we have made ourselves active participants on the international scene by playing a significant role in global climate change discussions—for example during last December's Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Poznan, Poland—all in the lead-up to the Copenhagen Climate Summit later this year, where the world is expected to agree on a post-2012 course of action for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fighting climate change.
From a Parks Canada's perspective, our government is providing new funding for projects geared to achieving the common goal of protecting Canada's natural legacy. And as we continue to manage 42 national parks, over 100 national historic sites and 3 national marine conservation areas, we expect to build on Parks Canada's reputation as one of the most competent and knowledgeable heritage conservation organizations in the world.
Mr. Chair, as you can see, we are doing a lot. But we are also primed to do more.
With three good years of solid environmental stewardship to our credit, we now need to expand our focus, and in light of changing global circumstances, adapt ourselves to the new landscapes of an ever-evolving world.
Mr. Chair, as this committee would know, the manifestations of several outside factors over the past several months have influenced how we must now proceed on the environment.
Two of these factors, in particular, will have a direct bearing on the way forward.
First, ladies and gentlemen, is the economic downturn.
To nobody's surprise, Mr. Chair, attention these days is focused almost exclusively on the economic downturn. As the economy falters and credit grows more difficult to obtain, Canadian firms are struggling to prosper and survive. As a government, we must assess whether this is the right time to add to industrial cost burdens with additional regulations.
The second factor to consider, Mr. Chairman, is the election of new leadership in the United States, in the form of a president who wishes to re-engage in a multilateral climate change negotiation and to turn some focus back to the environment. In itself, this bodes well for the creation of a North American regulatory approach and a level playing field that will alleviate concerns about Canadian competitiveness.
The United States is facing multiple and daunting challenges, both at home and abroad. Amongst them is the one that most preoccupies me, as Minister of the Environment, and that is the intertwined challenge of maintaining environmental integrity while enhancing our North American energy security.
Mr. Chair, our government has set ambitious goals for 2009. The first is to make our national environmental policies positive instruments of economic renewal and of national development during this period of economic uncertainty. Another is to develop an effective multilateral agreement for the years to come. And the third is to engage the United States in pursuing a coordinated approach to the energy and environmental challenges that both of our nations face and to make the case that our two countries should work together to bring new energy and economic renewal to North America by taking actions that not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also produce a larger and cleaner supply of both fuel and power.
For brevity's sake, let me focus on that third objective, Canada-U.S. collaboration, which I think you will find ties in directly to the other two objectives.
Canada, the U.S., and indeed the rest of the world now stand at a precarious crossroads in the fight against climate change, idling quite literally between a need for balanced environmental protection and a strong desire for economic stability.
So far, our respective countries have taken largely separate paths to address these needs and to tackle the main cause of our warming climate issues, namely, greenhouse gas emissions. But a shift in philosophy now needs to take place, one that calls on us to address, as partners, the environmental issues that straddle the borders of our two countries. Quite simply, Mr. Chair, Canadian and American governments need to work to ensure that our respective policy and regulatory frameworks are coherent and mutually supportive and that the road to reduced emissions travels straight through the heart of two nations towards common targets.
This, in my view, is good for two reasons: nature and human nature. I say “nature” in the sense that greenhouse gases accumulate in one common atmosphere, which is surely the ultimate form of transboundary pollution and interdependence in the world today. And I say “human nature”, since keeping score on the basis of artificial national boundaries and multiple territories is sure to lead to some gaming of the system for short-term and illusory purposes.
But what if we had in place a common North American approach, with common North American targets? What if we had a North American-wide greenhouse cap and trade system, as an illustration? Would that not yield greater success in bringing under control the shared emissions of our two countries? And would it not adequately level the playing field between state, provincial, and national jurisdictions? I think you will agree, committee members, that it would, and that the time is indeed right to explore the possibilities that might exist under an open-minded U.S. administration, with the hope of coming to some kind of an agreement on a North American approach to deal with greenhouse gases.
Based on where we stand today, we know that continuing on a unilateral pathway, while the U.S. pursues its own direction, could impede our economy, including in the energy sector, such as the oil sands and natural gas, and ultimately limit our ability to contribute meaningfully to global environmental protection efforts. We cannot let this happen, particularly when the alternative would help to secure our energy market, reduce our carbon footprint in a far more efficient manner, and, finally, help to move us beyond the empty rhetoric and unrealistic promises of previous international treaties and into a reality of attainable targets and real emissions reductions.
But we also need to go beyond targets, Mr. Chair, and talk about concrete actions, actions that will reduce not just North America's greenhouse gas emissions but its dependence on foreign oil as well.
While America once produced some 90% of the oil it consumed, the number has now dropped to 40% and is expected to dip to 20% by 2020, which would leave the United States as dependent on imported oil as are the nations of the European Union today.
I bring this up because Canada plays a major role in the American energy equation and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. We are America's largest supplier of oil, natural gas, and electricity. I would even add hydroelectricity, uranium, and coal as well.
With expectations of a 2020 world in which 80% of America's oil would come from foreign sources, Canada needs to be playing an even bigger role in the North American energy solution and needs to be playing that role now.
Mr. Chair, Canada not only can, but should, play a larger role in the North American energy security solution. Considering the implications of oil scarcity and situations in Russia, Venezuela or the troubled Middle East, Canada's status as the world's most reliable supplier of energy represents not just an economic opportunity for us, but also an obligation to others—perhaps even the single best way that we can contribute stability in an uncertain world. As the government, we know what we need—a secure energy future, and an understanding with our American counterparts that progress will come much faster if both our nations are travelling down the same road.
Going forward, we can't predict how the talks with the U.S. will play out, but we can say with certainty that the time is right for these discussions to take place... and that the stakes are too high to let partisan politics get in the way of doing what is right for the planet.
We must work together within our own borders and with our continental partners to find common ground that is good for Canada, good for the United States, good for the planet, and good for a shared consensus on energy security and climate change. This will be for the best of our citizens, our industries, and our environments on both sides of the border.
This, Mr. Chair, and ladies and gentlemen of the committee, will stand among our priorities in my time as the Minister of the Environment. I thank you for your attention, and I am pleased to address your questions.