Environmental laws in Canada fail to respond to the current biodiversity crisis

The caribou, whooping crane, the great Gibson’s tiger beetle, and the dwarf western trillium are some of the more than 80,000 known species (not counting viruses and bacteria) in Canada. Of these, scientists have enough information on nearly 30,000 species to know that about 20% are at risk to some extent.

When Canada developed its first national biodiversity strategy in 1995, it did so on the premise that a solid foundation of laws and policies was already in place. Twenty-five years later, however, prevailing trends in biodiversity point to the opposite.

For example, grassy prairies have lost at least 70 percent of their historical extent, and prairie birds have declined 57 percent since 1970. Only 24 percent of Canada’s 125 stocks of marine fish and invertebrates are currently considered. as healthy, including 18 in critical condition. State.

Our new research demonstrates how the management of biodiversity in Canada is undertaken through a bewildering array of laws, regulations and other tools administered by different federal, provincial and territorial departments. Collectively, they provide fragmented and inadequate protection for species and ecosystems.

More must be done immediately to overcome the inherent weaknesses of a federal system that prioritizes regional natural resource development over national biodiversity protection goals.

Canada’s Biodiversity Legal Protection System

With rich biodiversity across its immense landmass and coastal marine areas, Canada has a major role to play in the fight against global biodiversity loss. Canada was the first industrialized country to sign the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992. The CBD seeks to force the development of national strategies for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. Since then, Canada has played an active role in negotiations to renew and strengthen the treaty.

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Yet in our research, we identified 201 laws in Canada that have some impact on biodiversity protection, and the vast majority provide few direct safeguards for species and ecosystems.

Many of these laws govern the extraction of natural resources and focus on mitigating negative effects rather than avoiding them in the first place, or on managing the harvest of wildlife or fish populations. Various other laws, ranging from pollution control to climate change, may incidentally benefit biodiversity.

Among these laws, the primary objective of which is the protection of biodiversity, most are devoted to protected areas and species at risk, containing provisions that vary in force and are unevenly distributed across the country. No Canadian jurisdiction has a law in force specifically devoted to the conservation of biodiversity.

Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin introduced the province’s Biodiversity Act in early March 2021, with the goal of stemming the loss of biodiversity. More than half were deleted before it was passed in mid-April.

Nova Scotia, however, passed a biodiversity law in early April. It is the first law in Canada to be ostensibly devoted to the protection of biodiversity in the full sense of the word, but it has encountered such opposition that the law has been stripped of its prohibitions and enforcement measures.

The act remains purely enabling statute which simply grants the provincial Department of the Environment the power to take certain actions, such as creating a “biodiversity management area”. This means that the ministry does not have the power to prohibit or issue permits for activities that harm species or ecosystems, as was originally intended.

Take responsability

A big challenge in protecting biodiversity is the fragmented division of responsibilities. In Canada, the provinces and territories exercise control over natural resources. Laws that encourage the development of these resources assume that public lands can meet the needs of multiple users and that the negative effects of their development can be successfully minimized.

Aerial photography of lakes, wetlands and rivers.
Wood Buffalo National Park contains the second largest freshwater delta in the world. The United Nations World Heritage Committee has been concerned about the park since 2017 as ecological benchmarks, including water flow, have deteriorated.

Just this week, however, the United Nations World Heritage Committee reported that Wood Buffalo National Park, Canada’s largest, “likely meets the criteria for inscription on the List of World Heritage in Danger.” This is largely due to the cumulative effects of industrial developments outside the park resulting from uncoordinated and piecemeal decisions by the governments of Alberta and British Columbia.

To add to this challenge, environment ministries responsible for biodiversity protection have little financial negotiating power at the cabinet table versus revenue-generating ministries responsible for natural resource development. However, most of the responsibility for coordinating actions on biodiversity lies with these small and underfunded agencies.

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Making biodiversity conservation a priority or a guiding principle in the decision-making bones, as envisioned by the CBD, is nowhere in sight. Likewise, efforts recognizing the need to break out of political silos and address the combined crisis of biodiversity loss and climate change in a synergistic manner are not found outside the occasional pieces of government rhetoric.

A call to action

Our research provides important insight into why there is an urgent need for Canadian jurisdictions to work together to address the stark mismatch between stated national goals and the ability or willingness to achieve them. For example, Canada’s commitments to protect 30% of its lands and oceans by 2030 are an important expression of federal leadership, the implementation of which will largely depend on the provinces and territories.

The main drivers of biodiversity loss in Canada – land conversion, overfishing, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species – mirror those around the world. Currently, the 196 CBD countries are working together on virtual platforms to complete the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, which will set new targets to be achieved by 2030, as nature’s counterpart. to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. .

Once this is in place by the end of 2021, attention should immediately turn to national implementation. Canada must replace the outdated and incomplete Canadian Biodiversity Strategy so that jurisdictions can cooperate to actively reduce pressures on biodiversity outside protected areas.

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The development of a new Canadian strategy and associated action plan could play a key role in defining how to achieve transformative change to address biodiversity loss. It should include actions such as mainstreaming biodiversity considerations into policymaking in all jurisdictions, proper assessment of nature as an asset while ending harmful financial subsidies, and leadership of cooperative implementation across Canada, with an emphasis on Indigenous-led conservation.

Together, these steps would provide the opportunity to identify the regulatory, legislative, enforcement, funding and accountability measures needed to address the continued loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in this second largest country in the world.