Biodiversity Targets: Canadians Need Actions, Not Words

Biodiversity targets played a significant role in two statements from Canada’s prime minister this week. Find out why those statements ring hollow.

Now that the parks and conservation areas have reopened, I gave myself a little treat on the weekend. I visited a small, rural greenspace just outside of the town where I live.

It was good for me, both physically and mentally. Fresh air and exercise never hurt anyone, and we’ve covered the psychological benefits of nature connection in these pages before.

That should be reason enough to conserve wild spaces, but there are even more good reasons. It’s vital to our survival as a species.

Five Main Drivers of Species Extinction

According to the UN’s biodiversity and ecosystem services panel called the IPBES, there are five primary drivers of species extinction. They are, in order of importance, land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution and invasive alien species. 

These are all injuries that humans inflict on nature. In this story, we’ll be focusing on our most serious assault, land and sea use.

Back in 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio, 150 countries, including Canada, signed onto an international convention. It’s called the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Canada Signed the Convention on Biological Diversity

The convention calls for countries to “develop national strategies, plans or programmes for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.” It also commits parties to “integrate, as far as possible and as appropriate, the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity into relevant sectoral or cross-sectoral plans, programmes and policies.”

To flesh out the plan for biodiversity 2011-2020, Nagoya Japan hosted a meeting of the parties in 2010. The member states, including Canada, agreed to “develop national and regional targets…to reach the global targets.”

Conservation experts like Professor Reed Noss of the University of Central Florida, writing in the journal Conservation Biology, were calling for targets in the range of 25% to 50%. The politicians in Nagoya settled for global goals saying that by 2020, at least 17% of the world’s land and 10% of the world’s oceans would receive protection.

Conservation Experts Calling for Targets of 25% to 50%

So, did Canada develop those national biodiversity targets? The answer is “yes,” if you’re asking if there are national targets, but “no” if you’re asking if they meant anything.

Canada, under Stephen Harper, set cut-and-paste targets of protecting 17% of its land and 10% of its coastal and marine areas to preserve biodiversity by 2020. The tactic let them pay lip service to global standards. Although the party in power changed in 2015, the ineffectual targets didn’t.

Since then, Canada’s independent Auditor General has conducted three audits for the Environment Commissioner. Each one of them said that there was no strategic plan for biodiversity.

Audit Reports Found No Strategic Plan for Biodiversity

It’s hard to be a leader when you don’t have a plan. That advice is precisely what the Environment Commissioner gave the government when he delivered his Spring 2018 report, including the audit.

As the Auditor General put it, “Overall, we found that Environment and Climate Change Canada did not provide effective leadership and did not effectively coordinate the actions required to achieve Canada’s 2020 biodiversity targets.”

It’s now 2020, and, as of last December, Canada had preserved just 12% of its wilderness lands. We won’t get to 17% now that the year is half over.

Canada Won’t Meet Its 2020 Target

We fared better on the oceans. By announcing the new Tuvaijuittuq Marine Protected Area in Nunavut, the Canadian government can claim to have exceeded its 10% target. 

Even so, actions speak louder than words. Canada has yet to enact laws that create an official marine protection area there. The safeguards in place now are only temporary.

Summing up, Canada’s environment ministers set weak 2020 biodiversity goals. Then, they didn’t come up with a plan to achieve them.

No Leadership During the Implementation

After that, the government showed no leadership during the implementation. Now Canada’s leaders find themselves coming up short.

So, Canada’s track record on biodiversity is underwhelming at best. Canadians realize this, and they are disappointed.

In a Nanos poll conducted in January, 71% of respondents lacked confidence that Canadians were doing enough to protect the environment. Another Nanos poll that month showed that Canadians view environmental issues as the country’s top priority.

Long History of Being “All Talk” on the Environment

Taking all of this into account, a couple of statements by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau aren’t exactly reassuring. He has a long history of being “all talk” on the environment.

Trudeau took advantage of two international days that came up at the beginning of June to tout his government’s biodiversity goals and targets. These were World Environment Day and World Oceans Day.

On June 5, Trudeau marked World Environment Day, saying, “We exceeded our 2020 target of protecting 10 percent of Canada’s marine areas ahead of schedule, and we are working on a plan to conserve 25 percent of Canada’s land and 25 percent of Canada’s oceans by 2025, and 30 percent of each by 2030.”

“Conserve 30% of Canada’s Land and Oceans by 2030.”

Then, on June 8, came World Oceans Day. Trudeau doubled down in another statement, saying, “the Government of Canada is working closely with partners to protect aquatic species at risk, conserve 25 percent of Canada’s land and oceans by 2025 and 30 percent of each by 2030.

He went on to say, “We have already protected nearly 14 percent of our marine and coastal areas, up from around 1 percent in 2015 and past our goal of 10 percent by 2020.”

These claims are important for what they don’t say. Trudeau didn’t mention that he’s about to fall short of his 2020 goal for land conservation.

In Their Historical Context, These Words Ring Hollow

The prime minister also didn’t mention that the bulk of his results on the oceans front come from one unfulfilled announcement.  In their historical context, these words ring hollow.

A lot of environmental groups are lauding the prime minister’s statements. I understand what their strategy is.

They realize better than I do that Trudeau is ambivalent about biodiversity targets. Their goal is to draw attention to his future commitments and hold him to account later on.

Draw Attention to Commitment and Hold Him to Account

Their tactics may turn out to be useful, given Trudeau’s image consciousness, but I have some issues with them. As one of the few countries that is both vast and mostly uninhabited, Canada is in a unique position to go the extra mile on its biodiversity targets.

Biological Diversity Convention experts are now floating the goal of increasing the areas under conservation by 50% by 2030. Member countries plan to come up with definite targets this fall. That number is probably higher than the compromise they’ll reach.

The world is not going to hit its targets if Canada is only willing to set a 30% target. Unless we intend to set the program up to fail, we need to make up for countries with minimal green space to contribute like Singapore, the Netherlands and Hong Kong.

Make Up for Countries with Minimal Green Space

There’s another problem with Canada’s approach. We are meeting our modest targets by protecting massive swaths of arctic terrain and sea.

Although they’re affordable and easy to conserve, these habitats don’t have enough biodiversity to offer meaningful results. It’s a bit like looking for your glasses under the streetlight because it’s easier to see there.

As a rule, the closer to the equator we get, the more biodiversity we see. So, to have a genuine impact on biodiversity conservation, Canada has to protect some of its most expensive lands down by the US border. 

Since that’s where developers want to convert any vacant land for residential and commercial use, we don’t hear much about that. Still, setting biodiversity targets in those regions is the only way to successfully end biodiversity loss in Canada.

Government Seems Sensitive to the Will of the People

The Trudeau government seems genuinely sensitive to the will of the Canadian people. Despite my skepticism, I honestly do believe that they have good intentions on setting biodiversity targets and other environmental policies.

The trouble is Trudeau’s propensity for what he calls “balancing priorities.” The common-sense phrase for it “trying to please everybody.”

Unfortunately, the extinction crisis calls for more than empathy and eloquence. It calls for ambitious goals, concrete plans and political will.

Ambitious Goals, Concrete Plans and Political Will

Canadians want and need results on this topic. Follow-through is the lesson the present government needs to learn from its reduction to minority status in the last election. 

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Statement by the Prime Minister on World Environment Day
Statement by the Prime Minister on World Oceans Day
Auditor General Report 3 – Conserving Biodiversity
Zero draft of the post-2020 global biodiversity framework
Mass Extinction Happening Again
Nature Emergency: Time to Make It Official
Agricultural Biodiversity Under Threat Worldwide


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