Being a world leader?

Karen's picture

Calling a country a world leader evokes strong images. It conjures up ideas of military might, of technological advances, or perhaps of economic strength. Yet the title of world leader does not have to be contained to these descriptors. It can also be given to countries taking the initiative on peacebuilding, health crises and environmental protection.

Canada had a chance to be a world leader in environmental protection this past week. Unfortunately, this chance was missed.

For ten days last week, representatives from around the globe met in Bali to begin discussing what kind of agreement should follow the Kyoto accord when it expires in 2012.

This United Nations climate change conference was the opportune occasion for countries to show their commitment to taking action on climate change and to reveal their willingness to take risks to be environmental stewards – in short, it was an opportunity for countries to prove they are world leaders in environmental protection.

Canada, however, did not come away with such a title. Rather than leading other countries towards new sustainable solutions, Canada stuck to old arguments and received much criticism from United Nations officials, environmental groups and other countries.

Successive Canadian governments, while claiming to be committed to fighting climate change, have continually backed down from implementing effective policies, using economic stability as an argument against serious environmental protection.

Environment minister John Baird reinforced this argument when he stated that economic growth should not be hindered by environmental reforms. The presence of representatives from oil companies – rather than the usual environmental group representatives – on the Canadian delegation suggests the true origins of Canada’s current position.

Ironically, many environmental groups and businesses would agree that environmental reforms should not be detrimental to the economy. But rather than opposing the two, CEOs and environmentalists suggest that there are policies that can benefit both economic vitality and environmental sustainability.

Ecological fiscal reforms (EFRs) could bolster the economy and protect the environment. EFRs are programs that create sustainable development incentives through government taxation and spending. EFRs can be seen in Sweden, the United Kingdom and many other countries around the world. Examples of EFRs include programs like the deposit/refund system for bottles and Quebec’s carbon tax.

EFRs have been proven to help the economy and protect the environment. But rather than acting as a leader and taking the opportunity to present new, effective and beneficial sustainable options, the Canadian government stuck to the argument it has used for many years. The government missed the opportunity to encourage innovative solutions.

That was not the only opportunity missed, however. Canada also missed the opportunity to be seen as a strong, committed world leader.

As Minister Baird reiterated, Canada’s position was firmly rooted in ensuring that the world’s biggest emitters – India, China and the US – commit to binding targets before Canada would sign onto an agreement. Minister Baird argued that the positive outcomes of any agreement made without these countries would be nullified by their continued pollution.

Yet leadership is not defined by waiting for others to take initiative – doing so only shows a lack of commitment. Leadership requires moving forward and calling others to visionary action. In this case of environmental protection, leadership should encourage stewardship through a clear commitment to environmental care.

This situation also calls for leaders to take responsibility for their country’s actions. In Canada, we have failed to adequately consider the environment and have not made enough sustainable choices. Admitting guilt and taking responsibility requires a change in policies and a change of attitude and commitment.

As a country, our riches came from the harmful choices we have made. Imposing the burden of combating climate change equally on the world is unjust, since the wealthy countries have contributed much more to the problem than the poor. Canada’s position as a wealthy country also provides many possibilities for leading and funding innovative solutions to climate change.

Rather than waiting for other countries to sign onto an agreement, the federal government could show leadership by implementing reforms to decrease emissions and sticking to set targets. Using EFRs to achieve this reduction would also create a more sustainable economy. Leading by example would clearly define us as a world leader.

Becoming a world leader means taking risks, suggesting new opportunities and moving forward. Canada missed this chance at Bali, but will have ample opportunities to show leadership in the future as the issues surrounding climate change intensify.

Karen Diepeveen is CPJ's former Communications Coordinator.

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