The Harper Government Is Drastically Cutting Environmental Research

Climate change and pollution research is getting chopped, but migratory birds are good to go.

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Jun 26 2014, 5:58pm
Tar sands protest, Parliament Hill in Ottawa, 2011. Image: Peter Blanchard/Flickr

It's no secret Canada faces tough environmental challenges in the next few decades. While the bitumen flowing from the Alberta tar sands produces revenues accounting for over two percent of our GDP in oil and other petrol-goodies—relying on extraction methods that provoke scientific concern and visceral horror, means increased emissions and brutal toxic pollution. These sort of problems tend to get taken to scientists with the questions "how bad is it?" and "what do we do?" attached.

But Environment Canada claims to have Canadians covered, noting in their 2014-2015 Report on Plans and Priorities that they will "reduce threats to health and the environment posed by pollution and waste from human activities," and "develop regulations in support of the sector-by-sector approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions." All of which sounds very reassuring until you notice the same report projects an overall funding decrease for the department of 37 percent over the next two years.

First let's cover the good news: If you're a fan of migratory birds, no stress, the money to continue preservation efforts is safe. Other projects aren't so lucky. Funding for the Ecosystems Initiatives will fall from $53 to $26 million, Substance and Waste Management from $76 to $44 million, and the Climate Change and Clean Air budget will be reduced from $155 to $55 million—a staggering 64 percent lower than current funding levels.

The report stresses that much of the planned funding reduction is due to "sun-setting," referring to the expiry of temporarily funded programs, and that some programs may be extended, or replaced, which can't be reflected in the projections. In a May 29 meeting of the Parliamentary Environment Committee, Liberal MP John McKay asked about the decrease in funding for the Clean Air and Climate Change Department.

Minister of the Environment Leona Aglukkaq had a similarly noncommittal answer to those found in her report: "Decisions on the renewal of programs are yet to be made. We can't anticipate what the next budget will be," she said.

This is true to an extent. In each of the past five years Environment Canada's reports projected funding decreases over a two-year span, always because of the inability to predict funding extensions. Sometimes the actual budget ends up being lower than projected, or sometimes higher.

There is still major cause for concern about this year's report: It is the largest funding drop projected in five years, and the previous two largest projections, in 2009-10 and 2011-12, saw Environment Canada's funding fall 19 and 9 percent, respectively, when the budgets were released.

I asked Environment Canada to clarify what portion of cuts to the Climate Change and Clean Air department were due to program expiry and whether permanent reductions were planned. A media representative agreed to the request and deadline but failed to provide the information at the time of publication.

Despite an unwillingness to comment on specific departmental cuts, the report's graphs show that even if all temporary programs are renewed or replaced, total funding for Environment Canada will still decrease some twelve percent, or $125 million, by 2016.

Graphs from the Environment Canada report.

Specific program cuts are difficult to predict until that year's report is available, but Environment Canada provides monitoring and evaluation services for everything from weather and maritime reports, to wildlife and forestry.

They also employ scientists, from technicians to independent researchers, to collect data as well as provide reports that inform policy. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports resulted in Environment Canada scientists going splits with 9000 others (and Al Gore) on a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

I spoke with Dr. Adam Fenech, a climate researcher and director of the Climate Lab at UPEI, about Environment Canada's importance to independent researchers. "Academic research relies heavily on data collected by Environment Canada especially in the fields of water and climate monitoring," he said.

Previous reductions in monitoring capability have already had adverse effects. "To researchers, it appears as if there has been a 70 percent cut in Canada's climate observing stations since 1994," Fenech said. "This limits our ability to study how climate change will impact Canada, will impact our economic sectors and will impact our environment."

So what's happening to Environment Canada's funding? It's going down. And it remains to be seen how severe the reduction will be. Some of the cuts could be tempered by the renewal or replacement of temporary programs, but the onus for that is on government, which isn't cause to be optimistic.

In the case of climate change not only did the current Harper government agitate for the death of the Kyoto Protocol, it isn't even close to hitting the new targets agreed to in its wake.

Adding to their oil-friendly policymaking, the Harper government approved the construction of Enbridge's Northern Gateway Pipeline. Although it remains to be seen if it will even be built, given the glut of opposition to it in British Columbia. But with funding for Environment Canada declining, Canada's ability to evaluate and address the fallout from these decisions, as well as the other challenges facing our shared environment, could be seriously compromised.

Stephen Buranyi is a scientist living in London. Say hello to him as he types away at the Dalston Library, or follow him on Twitter.