Environment data to help shape policy

Madhavi Acharya
Toronto Star
May 26, 2001

Finance Minister Paul Martin wants the country’s economic picture to include information about the state of the air, forests and fisheries.

A set of environmental indicators, being developed over the next two years, will be used as yardsticks to track the country’s natural resources, Martin told a breakfast meeting that was hosted by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy in Toronto yesterday.

This data will then be compared to gross domestic product, unemployment and other traditional economic indicators that shape government policy.

The result will be a fuller picture of the effect economic growth has on the nation’s non-renewable rsources, the minister said.

These new tools will provide “the hard, quantitative data that will give us a sound basis for environmental and economic policy in the future,” Martin said.

“They will show us if we are using our natural resources properly, if our demand for renewable resources such as timber and fish is outstripping the environment’s capacity to replenish them.”

The indicators are currently being developed as part of a three-year project by Statistics Canada and the Round Table, an independent advisory group focused on sustainable development.

The initiative received $9 million of funding in the 2000 budget.

“It is incumbent upon us to show all Canadians not only that we are meeting our bottom-line financial targets, but that we are clearly focused on preserving and enhancing our natural heritage,” Martin said.

The finance minister also took questions from an audience of skeptical business and environmental groups.

Asked whether the new indicators will really influence government decision-making, Martin said the best way to ensure that is “boil them down, publish them on a regular basis and make sure the public understands them.”

Comparing the need to address environmental concerns to the government’s efforts to balance the federal budget in the 1990s, Martin said setting “measurable, step-by-step targets” for reducing the deficit was crucial.

“That is the kind of discipline that we must apply to our environmental challenges,” he said.

But some observers question the value of quantifying the state of the environment.

“We know there has been serious problems with depletion of fish stocks, for example,” Larry Solomon, managing director of Energy Probe, said in an interview.

“What benefit would there be in placing a number on that when it’s about as bad as it can get?”

The indicators are not meant to pit economic interests against environmental ones, Martin said.

“I certainly believe in the need for growth . . . but growth at any cost is simply counter productive. The whole purpose of the environmental indicators is that we have growth, but growth that is sustainable,” he told reporters after the meeting.

In one year, the Round Table plans to unveil a set of indicators tracking forest cover, fish stocks, water and air quality, and endangered species.

“We hope at the end of this to have a small number of clearly understood indicators that can be shown as curves or trends, alongside GDP, to answer the question, ‘Are we living well today at the expense of future generations?'” said Stuart Smith, chair of the advisory group.

The final data would be ready in two years.

Other quality-of-life indicators are typically gathered by volunteers, with little or no government support, Smith said.

“I think this will be the only country in which we actually have a government-requested initiative and something which the government will then use in annual financial statements.”

Meanwhile, Martin also said he remains optimistic about the state of the Canadian economy despite the U.S. slowdown.

“Sure we’re going to be affected by whatever is happened to our largest customer, but I feel very confident about Canada’s ability to come through this,” he told reporters.

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