Canada missing out on environmental innovation

Canada missing out on environmental innovation

November 1, 2005

When people think of environmental innovation, we tend to think of technological change—ways to pollute less, use fewer resources, or protect endangered species. Indeed, technological change is vital to overcoming many of the environmental hurdles we face—problems like climate change, persistent organic pollutants, and the loss of biodiversity around the globe.

But technological innovation is just the final step in solving environmental challenges. To get there, we need to first have adequate knowledge about our world; and second, we need to use the knowledge we do have to create systems that will allow innovation to flourish.

Let me explain. It’s often taken as a given in our high-tech world that we are extremely knowledgeable about the earth. If we can blow up the planet many times over with nuclear weapons, plan trips to Mars, communicate instantly through the Internet, cell phones and satellite systems, create artificial hearts and map the human genome, then surely we must have a pretty good handle on the variety of creatures that live on the planet, how they interact and what these natural systems mean for humanity.

The reality is, we don’t. Every year we discover new species, and every year we discover new things about our world that show how interconnected it really is. Who would have thought, for example, that spawning salmon could have an effect on tree growth as they are dragged into the forest by bears and wolves? Who would have thought that pollutants produced in seemingly far away parts of the world could persist and end up in some of Canada’s most remote and pristine areas?

Scientists have only documented 10 to 20 percent of the 10 to 30 million different species we share our planet with. We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the bottom of our oceans. More than half of all insects in the national collection in Ottawa have never even been identified! And of the species we have identified, we know almost nothing about their numbers, life cycles, ranges and interactions with other species. In many ways we are ignorant indeed.

So we have much to learn. But that doesn’t mean we can hold off on making important decisions about our world until we do know everything. With more than six billion people on this planet, we are using up far too many resources far too quickly to take a “wait and see” approach. Our challenge is to build systems that take advantage of what we do know to encourage new ways of thinking that will lead to a more sustainable economy.

We’ve had successes in the past—like the Montreal Protocol. When the CFCs were created, no one foresaw that they could end up in the upper atmosphere where they would eat away at the planet’s ozone layer, which protects plant and animal life from the damaging effects of ultraviolet rays. Scientists warned us about the problem and the world community reacted by phasing out CFCs. Many industry groups complained that the ban would put them out of business, but once the challenge was set, engineers and scientists went to work and quickly came up with alternatives that didn’t deplete the ozone layer.

Today, the world faces even bigger challenges. But once again, these problems can be solved through innovation. Consider climate change. Over the past decade, scientists have learned a great deal about how our climate functions and how it is reacting to the heat-trapping emissions we are pumping into the atmosphere. All of the world’s leading scientific organizations have called on our political leaders to take action and reduce our emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol was set up as a way to start us down that path. To its credit, Canada has adopted the agreement. But governments have been slow off the mark in actually reducing emissions. In part, this is because they have been trying to solve the problem using existing structures and systems that favour the status quo and actually discourage innovation.

Instead, we need to take a new approach—environmental fiscal reform. It’s a complicated-sounding term, but the approach is really quite simple. It just means setting policies so that the full societal cost of any activity is included in the price. Right now, the costs of smog pollution, for example—which costs Ontario residents more than $ 1 billion every year in health care and lost work—is borne by society as a whole, not just those who cause the pollution. By taxing pollution, you create an incentive to reduce it. The revenues raised could then be used to encourage cleaner technologies, or used to reduce payroll taxes. Either way, it increases competitiveness and innovation, while reducing pollution and the associated health care costs.

Right now, the federal government actually subsidizes oil industry expansion, even though oil prices are at record highs and the country is committed to reducing emissions through the Kyoto Protocol. Provincial governments, meanwhile, tend to ignore low-impact renewable energy in favour of fossil fuels for electricity generation. And municipal governments encourage suburban sprawl in an effort to obtain more revenue from property taxes, even though sprawl costs society more in the long term through increased traffic congestion, pollution and the loss of local farm land.

In many ways, Canada’s current regulations, tax schemes and subsidy structures are not set up to encourage environmental innovation. This, more than anything else, is holding our country back from being an environmental leader. By eliminating subsidies to activities that damage the environment and our health, and shifting taxes to discourage bad things, like pollution, and encourage good things, like clean technologies and investment, Canada can create a climate that will allow innovation to flourish rather than wither on the vine.

David Suzuki is a World-renowned geneticist, academic and broadcaster.

The views and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of the Canada Foundation for Innovation or its Board Directors and Members.