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October 24, 2002 Regional governments pick up the environmental ball



Political science professor Peter Stoett

Photo by Christian Fleury

by Frank Kuin

Some of the most valuable policies for environmental protection in North America are initiated by the continent’s smaller jurisdictions, says Peter Stoett, an assistant professor in Concordia’s Department of Political Science.

While the national governments in Washington and Ottawa have dropped the environment on their lists of priorities in favour of issues such as security, states and provinces tend to be more proactive in adopting measures towards conservation and green energy.

“The U.S. administration has been rather reluctant to take seriously any sort of international sustainable development agenda,” said Stoett, an expert on international environmental issues and co-organizer of a conference on environmental relations between Canada and the United States, held in Montreal in mid-November.

“The action is taking place at the state level and even the municipal level,” he said. “You do have various states adopting green energy programs, and local communities are moving towards improved recycling, water quality issues and things like that.”

The conference, titled Canada-United States Environmental Relations: From Bilateral Conflicts to Global Alliance? was held in collaboration with the Université du Québec à Montréal.
It addressed issues of conflict and co-operation between the two countries in the areas of natural resources, power generation and climate change.

In addition to energy and climate change, the conference covered a wide variety of issue-areas, such as acid rain, migratory birds, the Great Lakes, and the Arctic Council.

But while the smaller jurisdictions may be leading the charge to protect the environment, one of the conference’s participants pointed out that regional policy differences to promote sustainability might be vulnerable to challenges under NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Ian Rowlands, of the University of Waterloo, argued that a state’s hypothetical guideline that five per cent of its energy be generated by ‘green’ means could conceivably be contested under the non-discrimination clauses of the accord.

Under NAFTA, companies can sue governments over policies they feel benefit their competitors unfairly. This could become an issue between companies that generate different types of energy when one of them gets state support, Rowlands argued.

“Some would say that the neutrons coming out of your wall are identical, regardless of the way they are generated,” he said. “If jurisdiction A says its wants to reserve five per cent of generation for solar or wind power, a trade partner could challenge this because the products are alike, and so one cannot be discriminated against.”

Stoett concurred that supranational institutions, though they can provide clarity by harmonizing policies, are sometimes seen as detrimental to local initiatives. “If I was an economist, I would probably favour harmonized policies,” he said.

“But as an environmentalist, I’m less fond of them, because I like the idea of local control and responsibility.”

For that reason, Stoett called for vigilance if countries in the Western Hemisphere go ahead with the FTAA, the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

“If we lock ourselves even further into a trade agreement, the public should have a better sense of what the environmental impact would be,” he said.

On the whole, Stoett and his colleague Philippe Le Prestre, of UQÀM, welcomed the opportunity to draw attention to such environmental issues in the post-Sept. 11 world.
With some high-profile exceptions such as the debate over the Kyoto Protocol in Canada, “the environment gets sort of shoved to the back, especially in light of issues such as terrorism,” Stoett said.

“We think it’s important that we don’t forget about how central the environment and natural resources are to the relationship between Canada and the United States.”

The conference was supported on Concordia’s part by the Vice-Rectors, Services, Institutional Relations & SG, the Dean of Arts and Science, and the Department of Political Science.