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World Environment Day: Opportune time for better business, climate laws | David Israelson

Friday, June 05, 2020 @ 8:30 AM | By David Israelson

David Israelson %>
David Israelson
While the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, some experts, policymakers and legislators are wondering if this crisis is something of a test run for managing the issue that will still be with us once the virus has gone­ — climate change.

In fact there is a strong case that there are links between the two crises, and if the links aren’t readily apparent or strong yet, they should be. As The Economist noted on May 20, “the two crises do not just resemble each other. They interact.”

On account of the worldwide shutdown of industry and much economic activity, the International Energy Agency predicts that industrial greenhouse gas emissions will be some eight per cent lower this year than they were in 2019. That would be the largest drop since World War II, and while it’s encouraging, closing up everything is not the answer to the climate crisis.

What does the link between COVID-19 and climate have to do with law and policy in Canada and our provinces? A lot, actually. The forced pause we have been compelled to make as we seek to flatten the curve of disease provides an opportunity to look at how do more, and find better ways, to flatten the climate curve as well.

There are several good ways for lawyers to approach this. The first is to look at our existing policies, programs and laws and consider whether they are properly designed, well focused and robust enough to make a difference to climate change. The answer is easy — what’s happening now is not measuring up.

Even before COVID-19, federal and provincial climate change programs and the points at which they were supposed to intersect were confusing, messy, contradictory and often counterproductive. Part of the problem is federal-provincial relations — Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan have engaged in a quixotic battle to fight the federal carbon tax.

Another part of the problem is that what’s being contemplated nationally, by all levels of government, simply doesn’t look like it would be enough to make a significant dent in climate change.

That’s where the COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity. Canadians and their lawmakers have learned that not only is it critically important to respond quickly and comprehensively to a major challenge like the pandemic, there’s really no other way to respond.

This has arguably already eliminated the biggest impediment to climate change action — that any serious move would be too drastic and disrupt the economy. The economy is already disrupted, so we might as well use this occasion to restructure the way we work and live so we can be more resilient to climate change as well as viruses.

Until the pandemic, Ottawa sought to balance the long-term need for climate change action with the urgent need in Western Canada for economic and infrastructure help to the energy sector — a need that has become more urgent with a collapse in world oil prices and economic shutdown. It’s still crucial to balance peoples’ livelihoods with everyone’s long-term future; now that the world has been turned upside down it may be easier to be creative.

Since the pandemic took hold, Ottawa has rolled out a wide array of business and wage subsidies, including $1.7 billion earmarked directly to the energy sector to clean up inactive oil and gas wells. This is a positive move in that it cuts through a legal/philosophical argument about who should shoulder the environmental liabilities.

The second useful step that Ottawa, the provinces and local governments can take is to take all those policies and programs they should be analyzing and look at what they can do differently. On the legal front, it’s time to stop thinking small and start thinking big.

A good start, for example, would be for those provincial governments to quietly slink away from their efforts to kill the modest federal carbon tax that Canadians pay at the gas pumps. At a time when the federal government is shovelling funds to the provinces and the provinces are eager and sometimes desperate to co-operate, it’s a waste of time and effort to ask the Supreme Court of Canada whether saving the planet by acting on climate change is a public good that falls under federal jurisdiction. Enough with those dumb, misleading stickers that Ontario has tried to force onto every gas pump.

For municipalities, meanwhile, COVID-19 is a time to be bold. People are working from home more and commuting less already; let’s stop being so slow and half-hearted about bylaws that create more bike lanes and outdoor patios.

It’s clear already that when we emerge from the pandemic we’re going to live differently. Now’s the time to take on climate change differently too.

David Israelson is a lawyer (non-practising), author and journalist. Follow him on Twitter @davidisraelson or on Linkedin.

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