The governing Council of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) recently gathered in Boston to endorse a new blueprint created to guide better environmental management decisions in Canada, the United States and Mexico over the next five years.
The three North American countries also celebrated their 20-year collaborative relationship, with cabinet-level environment ministers and various speakers sharing national challenges faced over the previous five years.
According to Gina McCarthy, administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the new plan is “ambitious” but also “realistic,” and not simply about environmental and public health protection, but also reflects a sustainable economic strategy for North America.
“We have a great plan we’ve put on steroids, to work with our local communities, our states, our tribes and with our broader environmental justice communities so we can make sure that as we’re taking steps to reduce carbon pollution, we don’t hurt those who are most vulnerable,” said McCarthy, during a council session.
Under the new strategic plan and two-year operational plan, climate change and adaptation is a key interest area expected to align trilateral goals. And for the first time, the plan will involve local and traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) to inform CEC initiatives, while working on adaptation, as well as green growth and nurturing sustainable communities.
As the council sees an inevitable shift to a low-carbon economy, local and indigenous communities in Canada will need reliable and affordable energy options. As such, Environment Minister of Canada, Leona Aglukkaq, says their knowledge base must be seen as a tool for best practices moving forward.
“Decision-making is improved by seeking the advice from those who have lived off the land and continue to live off the land,” added Aglukkaq. “TEK and science research can work together in parallel; it’s not about picking one or the other, it’s about how you use both to make best decisions on the environment.”
TEK is one theme that will inform decisions. Other cross-cutting themes of the plan are the alignment of environmental regulatory standards, enforcement and compliance, as well as enhancing transparency through better performance measures communicated to the public.
The CEC’s three main priority areas for the next five years reflect urgent environmental issues. Meanwhile, $1.325 million in new grants through the North American Partnership for Environmental Community Action (NAPECA) will provide further support for community-based projects related to these new priority areas.
Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation
As economic damage from harsh weather increases across North America, each country supports the importance of climate change adaptation and mitigation measures.
During the one-day session, the CEC’s Joint Public Advisory Committee (JPAC), formed to advise the council and ensure public participation, organized a forum addressing water and climate change in regards to green infrastructure. Excess stormwater, of which climate change is an underlying cause, was one key area discussed among academia, industry and government.
“The steps we take now will help future generations,” said Gustavo Alanis-Ortega, JPAC chair. “At our forum, we heard that one of the first steps policy makers should take is to properly assess how vulnerable our communities are to the damaging effects of excess stormwater.”
Urban, rural and remote communities are at risk from these events, and green infrastructure and land-use planning are seen as tools for adaptation.
Some solutions for mitigating excess stormwater flows include more incentives for low-impact commercial and residential real estate developments, the construction of streets that allow stormwater to disperse better through the local environment, and more public green space to restore wetlands and habitats.
Small-scale installations that toughen the ability to reabsorb this water are identified as good tools in rural and remote communities, compared to construction of large artificial basins that recapture water.
Others proposed advice stemming from their respective research. Dr. Isabelle Thomas, associate professor at the University of Montreal, presented her research on adaptation and lessons learned from flooding in both Montreal and New Orleans.
“Yes, we have to adapt and build green infrastructure, but for whom and how?” she asked. “All these cities should have methods and databases in order to locate this vulnerability, to know what are the vulnerable populations and infrastructures.”
Thomas developed a method for helping municipalities better understand their vulnerabilities and proposed that cities consider themselves “a sponge,” learning to live with water, rather than returning it, while working with all levels of government and creating networks between academics, stakeholders and international connections. In addition, environmental adaptation practices in urban planning should be integrated with a cost-benefits analysis towards implementation.
A couple other initiatives under the new plan’s climate change mitigation and adaptation focus area include implementing action against greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and aligning them with international targets and piloting protocols to decrease emissions, such as black carbon and methane in sectors like waste management and transportation.
Green growth to foster sustainable economic growth is another key area that will inform the trilateral cooperation over the next five years. The CEC says this presents both opportunities and risks, as waste reduction, changes in how we use natural resources or the development of environmentally friendly products could also spark a demand for such products and services. Meanwhile, the demand could also reduce the pressure on natural resources, which could create opportunities for new sustainable patterns.
Initiatives of green growth include promoting and sharing helpful practices for improving energy efficiency with key stakeholders, ensuring best practices to promote technologies and measures for clean and efficient transportation, enhancing the management of sustainable chemicals in products and improving trade data on products containing environmentally regulated substances.
Alternatives for waste reduction and recycling, including diverting organic waste from landfills, will also be addressed, and tools will be developed to support sustainable consumption.
Sustainable Communities and Ecosystems
Canada, the U.S. and Mexico all plan to work through the CEC to support safe communities and ecosystems through risk assessment and management, while using TEK.
The priority in this area is to stop pollution before it occurs and reduce toxicity and the quantity of waste, while improving recycling efforts.
CEC says it hopes to preserve the integrity of ecosystems, landscapes and seascapes, while encouraging innovative technologies to stimulate local economies and reduce toxic exposure. Such reductions will help prevent wildlife loss and avoid contaminated soil and water.
Initiatives could include conservation projects to restore ecosystems, management processes to identify best on-site practices and increasing public awareness and community engagement in rural and urban areas.
From left to right Leona Aglukkaq,minister of environment for Canada, Gina McCarthy, administrator for the United States Environmental Protection Agency and Rodolfo Lacy Tamayo, deputy secretary of planning and environmental policy for Semarnat in Mexico.