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Elizabeth May (Guest Writer): Failings of the Global North

This post is a part of the JSDLP’s Reflections on the Global North blog series. / Ce billet s’insère dans la série thématique du blogue de la RDPDD Réflexions sur les pays industrialisés.

Attribution: Moyann Brenn, Paris

Attribution: Moyann Brenn, Paris

Elizabeth May is the Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands, Leader of the Green Party of Canada, and a member of the Order of Canada.

The climate crisis is all about inequality. At its core is the matter of intergenerational equity.  Do we, in our time and generation, have the right to deprive our children and grandchildren a liveable world?

It is also about climate justice and injustice within our contemporaries in the family of nations. Though many in the North want to minimize our role, and despite the fact that on an annual basis, China is now the world’s biggest polluter, the wealthy industrialized world still has a larger proportion of responsibility for the crisis.

The build-up of greenhouse gases that has changed the chemistry of the atmosphere is overwhelmingly from the industrialized North.  Year on year contributions to greenhouse gas emissions are not as relevant as the emissions as they build up cumulatively.  Carbon dioxide is a very long-lived gas in the atmosphere.  The tailpipe exhaust from todays’ traffic will be warming the atmosphere for the next one hundred years.   So rather than excuse ourselves for the pollution since the Industrial Revolution, the North is comfortable saying “but what about China?  India? Brazil?”

But the build-up of GHG in the atmosphere is more like a bank account.  Those depositors who have been making substantial deposits for decades have more wealth—i.e. responsibility—than those who came along recently.

The Kyoto Protocol embraced the difficult dynamic that all countries must act, but that the industrialized wealthy countries need to go first.  That was how we structured a treaty to save the ozone layer.  In 1987 the industrialized world agreed in a binding treaty to reduce ozone-depleting substances by 50% while developing countries were allowed to increase emissions by 15%.  That was the birth of “common but differentiated responsibilities.”  It worked in the Montreal Protocol.  But the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 ran up against an unexpected campaign from the wealthy North.  Confronted with the problem that the wealthy industrialized countries had set in motion a threat to planetary survival, other wealthy states decided not to do their part.  Actually, that is not entirely true.  Only the biggest polluter decided to deny responsibility.

The United States and its fossil fuel lobby settled on the rallying cry against Kyoto of “It’s not fair!”  By design, and based on the success of the Montreal Protocol, the first binding emissions reductions for greenhouse gases (GHG) never contemplated asking developing countries to reduce emissions.  It was always the plan that Kyoto was a down payment on future actions.  The plan was always for Kyoto to be a first step to be followed in its next phase by developing countries taking on targets next time.  But with the US and then Canada repudiating Kyoto and allowing emissions to rise, the entire plan surrounding GHG cuts went off the rails.  The disaster that was COP15 in Copenhagen revolved around the question of fairness.  Having failed to meet the targets negotiated at Kyoto, the USA responded by promising billions in development and adaptation, but nothing concrete on reducing its own emissions.

The climate negotiations in Paris are now based on a much more limited approach than that available to nations in 1987 when we protected the ozone layer.  No deadlines are in the treaty, and no enforcement mechanisms through trade sanctions.  The rise in globalized corporate power, in particular the creation of the World Trade Organization, has circumscribed national powers to use trade sanctions for environmental treaties.

Can COP21 succeed?  Yes.  Even with the more limited range of options, a binding treaty is still possible and it can include, and in fact, must include, substantial measures to address the equality issue.  Funds must be committed both to the Green Climate Fund, which was launched in Copenhagen by the US with a promise to have $100 billion available every single year to assist the developing South meet the challenge of climate change, as well as to an insurance-like system to help cover “Loss and Damage” occurring in poorer nations due to extreme weather events.

The responsibility to act rests heavily on Canada.  We have the means to do so.  We still waste more than half the energy we use.  We have enormous potential in renewable energy – untapped tidal, solar, wind and geothermal (I do not consider Site C and other massive hydro power as renewable or green).

Canada also has a history of compassion and support for the developing world.  With a new government, we must press for real climate action in the context of justice and equity.

Attribution: Dru, Purgatory Glacier in British Columbia (Snowside Mountain, Purgatory Glacier, and Styx Mountain)

Attribution: Dru, Purgatory Glacier in British Columbia (Snowside Mountain, Purgatory Glacier, and Styx Mountain)

Poverty and Income Inequality in the Democratic Party

Ce billet s’insère dans la série thématique du blogue de la RDPDD Réflexions sur les pays industrialisés. / This post is a part of the JSDLP’s Reflections on the Global North blog series. 

Charles-Philippe Lamy is in his first year at McGill law. He is a self-avowed politics junkie and writes about constitutional law in his spare time

The American Presidential election of 2016 is now less than one year away. I have been greatly enjoying watching the various candidates vie for their respective party’s nomination, and one issue that has finally galvanized candidates from both parties is the pressing economic crisis in the United States of poverty and income inequality.

These issues are not new to these campaigns, but what is new is the extent to which Republican candidates have changed their messaging on poverty and income inequality. While once they were largely silent, the heart of most candidates’ economic platforms is directed to alleviating poverty and reducing income inequality. A great deal of this election campaign has been composed of their criticizing the Obama Administration for having failed to reduce the economic burden poverty and income inequality places on lower and middle class Americans.

To assess the impact this may have on the Democratic Party we should consider two questions. First, how accurate is the Republican claim about President Obama’s record on poverty and income inequality. Second, do the Democrats possess a strong and unified economic message to counter the Republican claim?

First, the record is that the Obama Presidency has plainly been a failure in actually helping Americans suffering the brunt of economic injustice. The President made great promises to tackle poverty and income inequality during both presidential campaigns, but in fact under his tenure we have lost ground. Income inequality has grown during Obama’s Presidency, and at a faster rate than during George W. Bush’s Presidency. The  middle quintile of American families have seen their incomes drop 19% since 2009, while the top two quintiles have seen their incomes increase 40%. On the day Obama became President the employment-to-population ratio was 60.6% while this October it was 59.2%.[1] This number supports the claim by Republicans and Bernie Sanders that the real unemployment rate is upwards of 10%, as the official unemployment rate of 5.0% is kept artificially low by excluding those who have ceased looking for work for more than four continuous weeks.

Further, the poverty rate remains tragically high at 14.8%, a level that is statistically unchanged since 2010. For reference, the Bush years ranged from 11.7% to 13.2%. Additionally, the United States now has a record 2.5 million homeless children and 46 million on food stamps. Lastly, Obamacare has proven to be a disaster. After 22 of 23 co-op state exchanges became unprofitable in 2014, more than half have since declared bankruptcy. This has cancelled the insurance coverage for more than 600,000 people (and counting).

The failure of Obama’s Presidency to achieve gains on poverty and income inequality has created a crisis in the Democratic Party. During Obama’s first term the party was largely united in the economic principles and policies it advocated to address poverty and income inequality. But Obama’s record has tattered the party’s unity, splitting Democrats into two groups possessing two distinct visions of what the party’s economic principles and policies should be. We should examine each vision in turn, particularly its roots and its position on poverty and income inequality.

The first vision is ‘third-way’ centrism and is currently championed by Hillary Clinton. Clinton remains wary to describe herself in such terms, preferring in recent months to describe herself as a pragmatic progressive to assuage primary voters, but she nevertheless has a voting record and a full career-worth of statements displaying her third-way centrist core. Clinton will criticize Obama’s lack of achievements on poverty and income inequality due to his unwillingness to compromise and work with Republicans by advocating policies conservatives cannot possibly compromise with. Third-way centrism retains a powerful hold in Democratic circles. Although it was jettisoned due to the financial crisis for Obama’s more progressive vision, Clinton is hoping it will make a comeback. The failure of the Obama Administration in combating poverty and income inequality, as well as the growing nostalgia for the Clinton Presidency, may allow Hillary to unite the party behind this centrist revival.

The second vision is championed by Bernie Sanders, and is steeped in an ideological democratic socialism that believed Obama has failed due to his timidity in confronting the systemic corruption of the capitalist economy. The historical roots of this vision in the progressivism of Lyndon Johnson and George McGovern, although arguably one could identify Franklin Roosevelt as its true patriarch. This vision is offering a strong counterargument to Clinton’s centrist vision, and the party has rather evenly split over which it favours. It is this split that has left the Democrats without a strong and unified vision, and it does not look to be easily resolved in the short term.

One candidate will eventually succeed, and the party may reluctantly unite behind that candidate, but I do not believe the party will unite over that candidate’s vision. That is the crisis the Democratic Party is now facing in the wake of Obama’s Presidency, and which will likely constitute its weakest flank when it comes time to face the Republican nominee.


Sewage, image, and outrage: Montreal’s 8 billion litre debate

Ce billet s’insère dans la série thématique du blogue de la RDPDD Réflexions sur les pays industrialisés. / This post is a part of the JSDLP’s Reflections on the Global North blog series.

Adrian Pel is a first year student at McGill’s Faculty of Law and serves as an associate editor of the JSDLP. He recently completed an MA in geography at the University of Toronto.

Earlier this month, Montreal made national and international headlines when it intentionally dumped 8 billion litres of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River. The move sparked outcries and political posturing. Opponents circulated online petitions, staged protests and penned op-eds. Shortly before the dump was planned to begin in October, and at the height of the Federal election, the Conservative government sudddently ordered the city to temporarily suspend the dump. The delay was temporary though. The city of Montreal, led by Mayor Denis Coderre, soon pressed forward with the plan on the basis that there was no viable alternative.

The effects of the sewage dump are unquestionably negative. However, arguments made that the episode was the product of bureaucratic ineptness (the CAQ called on Quebec Environment Minister David Heurtel to resign), disregard for the environment and cost-cutting by the city of Montreal are not entirely convincing. They do not reflect the complicated context of the decision and the governance issues at play.

Counterproductively, some opponents have adopted a similar hardline stance as that taken by Coderre. Instead of arguing that “there is no alternative” to the dump they contend that “there must be an alternative” to it. While their arguments are well-meaning, they appear to underplay the thorough analysis undertaken, democratic oversigh and significant economic and regulatory constraints.

Photo of sewage dump

Source: flickr.com/photos/stuckincustoms/314036511

In particular, the expertise involved in the decision making process has been challenged in rhetorically charged assertions with limited factual underpinnings. Green Party deputy leader Daniel Green claimed in early October that the amount of sewage release could easily have been halved if the dump were to take place in February . In his own words: “”The City of Montreal could, for example, work in February and dump this wastewater when there is no migration of ducks and other migratory birds…” Similarly, Projet Montréal environment critic Sylvain Ouellet wondered: “Wouldn’t it be possible to pump the wastewater into another sewer line temporarily, to avoid polluting the river?”.

While Green paints a vivid picture of wildlife needlessly suffering and Ouellet raises a valid question, neither present evidence-based policies. Indeed, a review of the dump proposal has shown that autumn is no worse a time to dump the sewage than any other season. Indeed, this review found that a sewage release during the winter or spring would have a worse impact on fish reproduction. With this said, some insightful commentaries have sought to provoke public reflection rather than apportion blame or propose hypotheticals.

It is important to understand the context in which the decision was made. On one hand, Montreal is seeking to maintain its existing infrastructure. This is taking place within a period of provincial austerity. The city has revealed that building a back-up sewage line to avoid the dump would cost $1 billion. It bears mentioning that if the sewage infrastructure is not kept up to date, accidental releases may occur. On the other hand lies the environmental impact. Although Montreal will experience some of the environmental impact, the dump will also have effects on areas downstream. Although Montreal obviously does not want to inflict negative impacts on its neighbouring municipalities, the constellation of provincial austerity, a decade of federal avoidance of environmental issues, and municipal self-interest serve to constrain and shape its policy choices. The debacle has illustrated that the sewage dump was not a problem of engineering or foreseeability, but one of a public policy sphere in which costs are anathematic and pollution is tolerable.

Not all sewage dumps are blamed on politicans and bureaucrats. A Toronto sewage dump in 2013 offers a contrasting episode. That year, a torrential rainstorm hit Toronto, leading to the release of up to 1 billion litres of sewage into Lake Ontario in a single day as the sewer system overflowed. The event was seen as a freak storm, and consequentially was blamed on ‘nature’ itself. While the storm was a significant one, the reaction focused on the weather rather than on Toronto’s antiquated sewage system. Such is the dirty secret of antiquated sewage systems found in many cities including Toronto, New York City and London.

The response to Montreal’s sewage dump has clearly been one of selective outrage in which critics have downplayed the city’s complex situation. While the significant response elicited by the dump is a positive sign – especially given the historic lack of public interest in such matters – the fact remains that sewage dumps caused by ageing  sewers remain a pervasive problem around the world. If governments are committed to environmental protection and sustainability, they ought to look inwards towards cities rather than just outwards towards protecting areas of “unspoiled nature”.

Source: flickr.com/photos/marieberne/8013239676

Source: flickr.com/photos/marieberne/8013239676

Green Politics and the Canada Elections Act

 This post is a part of the JSDLP’s Reflections on the Global North blog series. / Ce billet s’insère dans la série thématique du blogue de la RDPDD Réflexions sur les pays industrialisés

Brendan Cooke is a second-year student at McGill Law who likes parks, politics and pursuing his dreams. In his spare time, he likes to dance.

Thomas Mulcair

Skeptical Thomas Mulcair by Laurel L. Russwurm. Via Flickr

I think we all remember the ugly attack ads from this past election season. A typical one would feature an unflattering picture of Mulcair’s face, paired with a sneering voice scorning the tax-heavy environmental policies that the NDP plan to implement. Or, a group conducting interviews for the job of Prime Minister, lambasting Trudeau for the unsoundness of his green technology investment plans.

In fact, none of the above attack ads were run during the election – or at least, the ads that did run did not target environmental policy specifically. This election season has been remarkable in just how little the environment has been discussed at all. The CBC noted in September, for example, that the parties had largely ignored the issue in favour of the economy.

What caused the departure (exclusion) of the environment from the federal political landscape during this past election season? Without attempting to canvass exhaustively the answer to this question, I will point to the Canada Elections Act to argue that Canada campaign finance rules are partly to blame for the situation. These rules favour parties who bring in more money, so that the rules bolster the message of the Conservative Party. This has allowed the ideas of that party to diminish the visibility of environmental issues in the election campaign.

Let’s begin with the regulation of spending on advertising by political parties. In Canada, from the time that an election is formally called, until the election itself, political parties as well as other organisations have spending limits, both in individual riding contests and national limits. Outside of this time, most importantly in the months leading up to the calling of an election by the Governor General, parties and all other organizations can spend unlimited amounts on advertising, leading to what the National Post termed an “orgy of spending” in these precious months.

Not only does this framework encourage an “orgy of spending” but it also undercuts the spending limits during election time. Parties can spend huge amounts of money outside of election season, which weakens the equalizing effect that the spending limits would otherwise have between political parties. The spending limits are calculated based on how many candidates a party is fielding, so that generally the major parties all have the same spending limit. This limit is moot, however, when there are large stretches of time when they can advertise to voters, unimpeded by spending limits.

Due to the fact that this spending is totally unregulated and that parties are not required to report how much they spend during this time, it is hard to tell which party spent the most on advertising during the lead-up to the 2015 election season. But we do have the numbers from fundraising efforts by each of the parties – and the results are unsurprising. In 2014, the Conservatives raised about $20 million, the liberals $15 million and the NDP, just $9.5 million – the Conservatives had a clear majority in terms of fundraising numbers. And this trend has been going on for quite some time. In 2004, 2009, and 2011 the Conservatives fundraised more than all other parties combined. In 2011, likewise. The Conservative Party ran a much more efficient campaign finance regime relative to the other parties, bringing in much more money to spend on election advertising.

Stephane Dion at Carleton

Stephane Dion at Carleton by Grant Oyston, via Wikimedia Commons

The effect of all of this has been to amplify the voice of the Conservative Party message, the framing of which is partly to blame for the invisibility of environmental issues. Under Harper, the party has been quite successful in branding itself, through advertising, as the party of the economy. Along with this branding, either through the extensive attacks on the Liberal Party’s Green Shift campaign and its leader Stephane Dion in 2008, or through various media efforts, the Conservative Party has also implied that a stance in favour of the economy is necessarily one that opposes the environmental movement. Thus, through the framing or branding of their party, the Conservatives have attempted to persuade Canadians that the economic prosperity in Canada is antithetical to heavy environmental regulation.

Crucially, although the Conservatives may not be consistently successful in persuading people that this is a correct policy position, they have successfully solidified it as a reflex in Canadian politics. It has almost become a trope that any serious discussion of environmental policy must be qualified by reassurances that the economy won’t suffer as a result. In brief, the money of the Conservative Party has allowed this organization to frame the environment as a charged, dangerous issue for Canadian politicians.

What could reduce the amplification of this particular voice on the Canadian political landscape? A sensible first step would be to impose limits on spending by political parties outside of election seasons, which would weaken the predominance of moneyed parties in shaping politics in Canada. There are, of course, parties in Canada which support environmental regulation, notably the Green Party. The message of the Greens might counterbalance the ideas of the more conservative parties of Canada if the playing field were more level, reducing the dangerousness of environmental issues in politics in Canada, and ultimately making our political culture just a little more environmentally friendly.

Corporate Accountability — A Call for International Tax Reform

Ce billet s’insère dans la série thématique du blogue de la RDPDD Réflexions sur les pays industrialisés. / This post is a part of the JSDLP’s Reflections on the Global North blog series.

Sira Baldé is a second year McGill law student and third culture kid from Senegal who is passionate about social justice. She writes in her spare time and is an avid yogi.

photo of globe surrounded by people

via Wikimedia commons

Photographers, filmmakers and journalists some of whom work independently for various aid organisations regularly travel to African conflict zones and relay the images of violence, failed states and chaos frequently seen in Western media and news outlets. The mostly negative portrayal and simplification of African politics and conflicts in Western media and Hollywood is not only one dimensional and incomplete in its perpetuation of a single story, but also lacks significant context.

One example that comes to mind is the movie Captain Phillips which recounts the true story of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking by Somali pirates. The thriller depicts these former fishermen turned pirates as high seas criminals and while the poverty that drove them to resort to piracy is briefly shown, the narrative chooses not to delve into the foreign illegal fishing and the illegal dumping of toxic waste by foreign vessels.

Prevalent explanations in the development discourse for the perceived failure of African states include poor leadership, patrimonial networks and corruption. All these factors are certainly present on the African continent and hamper development, however the problem of corruption is highlighted mostly where corrupt African officials are concerned. Broader structural problems such as illicit financial flows, and economic inequality in the business models of multinational corporations operating in Africa are seldom highlighted. According to a UN report on illicit financial flows, bribery and embezzlement on the African continent constitute about 3% of illicit outflows, criminal activities make up 30-35% and commercial transactions by multinational corporations (MNCs) make up the majority of illicit outflows at 60-65%.

MNCs’ status as separate legal entities enables the maximization of profits through international tax evasion and the exploitation of cheap labor in jurisdictions with weak government regulation. According to Action Aid, Malawi – a country ranked by the World Bank as the poorest in the world – has lost $43 million in revenue from Paladin, an Australian uranium mining company, over the last six years due to tax avoidance. Malawi also has one of the highest rates of people living with HIV/AIDS and yet revenue that could be used in their national health sector steadily makes its way into off shore accounts in tax havens.

photo the the Earth from space

via Wikimedia Commons

The onus of increasing the level of accountability of MNCs rests on both the Global North and on the governments of Global South countries whose resources and human capital development are at stake. Enforceable domestic legislation and the development of active trade union collectives are needed to regulate the activities of MNCs and local government officials along with the establishment of a standard living wage for those whose labour and resources contribute to the profitablity of these corporations.  That being said, the host countries of subsidiary companies cannot be relied on entirely to provide a solution. The Global North too, can play a significant role by curbing permissive corporate laws and amending the legal principle of limited shareholder liability that results in a lack of accountability for MNCs in cases of human rights abuses and resource theft in developing countries.

Reflections on the Global North Series

Much of the writing on international sustainable development centers on Global South societies undergoing industrialization. Authors in this field propose laws and reforms to direct and limit the dynamism and growth of these countries, often with an unquestioned acquiescence that industrialized societies, having already “emerged,” are not concerned with the most pressing problems of sustainable development.

Yet, despite the “developed” label our societies carry, they continue to evolve in their ways of damaging the natural world, and the many impacts of our own dynamic social structures on the world we inhabit are often left unexamined. We want to change that.

This year, we examine failings—legal, social, economic, environmental—in the Global North that undermine our ability to develop responsibly. It is an introspective look at the beliefs supporting our laws and practices in a fast changing world. We hope that these critical perspectives on the state of our development will help in the recognition of our own need for direction and limits, and shed some light on what they might look like.

La littérature qui traite du développement durable international se concentre surtout sur les économies émergentes du Sud. Les auteurs dans ce champ d’études proposent lois et réformes pour promouvoir la croissance responsable de ces économies, considérant que les économies du Nord, étant déjà « développées », ne sont pas concernées par ces importants enjeux de développement durable.

Bien qu’étiquetées « développées », les sociétés industrialisées continuent à évoluer tout en nuisant à l’environnement. Les auteurs dans ce domaine oublient parfois d’examiner les impacts des structures sociales changeantes de nos sociétés. Nous voulons changer cela.

Cette année, nous examinerons les défaillances des économies du Nord — tant légales que sociales, économiques et environnementales — qui minent notre capacité à nous développer de manière responsable. Il s’agit d’un regard introspectif sur les croyances sous-jacentes à nos lois et nos pratiques. Nous espérons que ces réflexions critiques quant à l’état de notre développement aideront à mettre en lumière nos carences et les solutions qui se proposent.


Chasing Marble and Masks: our empty search for beauty ever more?

This post is a part of the JSDLP’s Reflections on the Global North blog series.

Ce billet s’insère dans la série thématique du blogue de la RDPDD Réflexions sur les pays industrialisés.

Ghaith is in his second year of studies at McGill Law, and enjoys reading, playing piano, and pretending to be good at sports.

Michelangelo’s David. By Jörg Bittner Unna, via Wikimedia Commons

Michelangelo’s David. By Jörg Bittner Unna, via Wikimedia Commons

I owned two pairs of footwear before moving to the city. Growing up in Luskville’s secluded woods I had my workboots, which doubled as winter boots, and running shoes, which took care of everything else.

In Montreal, it is a sartorial crime to possess less than 5 (many play it safe with 6).  For better or worse men like me have been duped, by the combined forces of high fashion and Madison Avenue mad men, into putting some more effort into our appearance.

It’s not just men of course.  In 2014 the average American purchased 64 clothing items, including 7-8 shoes.  Cosmetic procedures are at an all time high.  Nuanced fashion statements running the gamut attract swathes of followers on Instagram and Pinterest.  Everybody wants to look better.  As they always have. The cost of this pursuit today, however, is higher for people and the planet than ever before.

For boys, it began with the metrosexual.  A decade on since Mark Simpson introduced this moniker to the US, it has evolved into a far greater extreme: the spornosexual (portmanteau of sport and porn). Men’s magazines like GQ and Esquire have noted this growing trend:

[Spornosexuality] places further pressure on men by requiring them to not only tick all of the metro boxes (ie, looking groomed, smelling good, dressing exclusively in branded clothing) but also to adhere to a specific physical ideal. It’s an improbable, sporty, porny, ripped-to-shit ideal, and means that men are increasingly beholden to the same unrealistic body expectations that have long plagued women, with the abdominal “V-line” becoming as fetishised as the “thigh gap”.

Of course, young women still have it worse when it comes to facing impossible pressures to keep up appearances. Most prefer skimping on food over cosmetics. 25 percent of American young women would rather win America’s Next Top Model than the Nobel Prize. Another one in four would rather lose their ability to read than their figures.

Everybody trying to look better might not be an issue if it were not for the harm it caused; take fashion.  Garments today are manufactured not to be passed down, but to be marked down and disowned in time for the fast fashion cycle’s next pulse. In April, John Oliver blew the lid on the social costs of disposable fashion: Widespread use of child (sometimes slave) labour; the disastrous 2013 Savar building collapse in Bangladesh that left over 1,000 people dead and 2,000 injured; horrific working conditions and poor wages. The burdens of our clothing habits have not lessened or shifted since the initial public outrage against clothing companies in the 1990s.  If anything it is worse: a typical fast fashion retailer like H&M can bring a dress from the runway to the store in as little as three weeks, and still retail it for $4.95. As for the environmental costs, we know where these clothes wind up.  Clothe-swaps, charity, rags, it makes no difference: it’s no question that all find their way into a landfill, or one of the expanding gyres of floating waste littering ocean habitats.

It seems like the death, destruction, exploitation, and irreparable environmental harm aren’t worth the $4.95.

Holding our physical appearance in such high regard carries costs and harms of its own. For spornosexual men, packing on and maintaining “gains” through physique training will cost you your schedule.  Those 20+ hours a week spent in the gym and the kitchen devouring extra meals to hit your daily macronutritional intake (which is bro-science for eating for two) is a so far unmeasured time (and money) sink that could go towards more enriching activities. This is without factoring for the environmental costs of raising all the livestock (methane, nitrate and antibiotic pollution, manure lagoon bursting) that goes into a typical meal plan.

For girls, much of the same is true.  Each year thousands of hopefuls spend ludicrous sums of money, not including training, classes, and coaching, just to audition for the International Model and Talent Association with the hopes of getting a break in modeling (many go into serious debt to do so, and the vast majority return home empty handed).  Twelve thousand women compete for the Miss America pageant every year, and thousands more compete in Miss USA.  To prepare for the competition in the beauty industry, many parents push their children into child beauty pageants where they are spray tanned, placed unawares in demeaning clothing, and made to compete against each other before they can even spell.  The result?  An endless talent pool for thirsty industry scouts, and a dead end for gender equality and the fashion careers of tens of thousands of girls.

Why do individuals continue to hold their appearance in such high regard, if the price is so high?  Personal vanity is an easy scapegoat, but the fact is our culture rewards looks to the extent that in spite of these costs, it is still worth it. Hookup culture and Tinder, Instagram and social-media peacocking aside, social science research shows that appearance brings rewards. It is true for income: Physical appearance has a greater impact on earnings (looking at the labour market as a whole) than education, and attractive people have an easier time securing a loan. All else equal, even plain-looking NFL quarterbacks earn less than handsome ones.  It is equally true in our justice system: as law professor Deborah Rhode documents in her book The Beauty Bias, more attractive people recover more damages and receive milder prison sentences (in simulated legal proceedings) than their homelier counterparts.

So what’s the solution?  The law does what little it can against these biases. “Lookism” is prohibited by municipal ordinance in Santa Cruz, California, and personal appearance is a protected trait under the District of Columbia’s DC Human Rights Act.  Some scholars argue that section VII of the US constitution should be expanded to cover immutable characteristics. These are equality rights issues where slow movement is understandable.  There needs to be undisputed evidence before we admit physical appearance as a protected right, and the difficulty in recording violations might make such a right dead on arrival.

It is inexcusable though that where there is room for intervention, there is silence: on the impossibly flawless physiques and faces staring down on young men and women from magazine covers, on an almost doubled rate of breast enlargements since 2000, and the deluge of fabrics strung together in sweatshops that only to grace our bodies for a season or two before entering the landfill (or perhaps worse, flooding local economies that once produced clothes sustainably).

The law cannot force people to disinvest their appearance from their self-worth, but legislators have ample opportunities to reorder our priorities: s. 52 of the Competition Act already governs misleading illustrations, and could be expanded to fight the use of post-production and retouching on the images glazing our fashion magazines covers.  Cosmetic procedures, beauty competitions and slogging it in the gym are personal decisions about one’s body, but provinces can double down on education to help ensure that individuals appreciate themselves less superficially.  At the very least, we can ensure individuals are of age when making these decisions: Parliament can follow France’s lead in passing a bill banning child beauty pageants and the hypersexualization of children through its criminal law power. Finally, provinces can enhance their consumer protection legislation: Clear legal warranties (automatic warranties that apply regardless of whether the vendor provides one) for retail garments would force companies to make more durable clothes and prevent consumers from indulging the fast fashion cycle.

The law can help level the playing field in our search for beauty.  The next challenge should be how to turn that path inwards.  Hopefully, people won’t need the law to figure out how many shoes they’ll need for that journey.


A statue of David.

David II. Gwen, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Mobilité Montréalaise

Alexis Hudon est étudiant à McGill. Bénévole au Santrovélo, un atelier-coop de vélo, ses mains sont rarement propres l’été.



Montréal est-elle une ville de vélo?
Selon la blogosphère, Montréal aurait « 30 d’ans d’avance » sur le reste de l’Amérique du Nord. Le célèbre index Copenhaguenize a couronné Montréal 11e métropole au monde — et première sur le continent — pour le vélo urbain. Au grand dam du maire Coderre, Montréal est récemment tombée en 20e position, laissant les lauriers nord américains à Minneapolis. L’été, les pistes cyclables sont bondées et les vélos envahissent les clôtures comme des mauvaises herbes. Tout semble aller pour le mieux!

Qu’en est-il vraiment?

Cette question n’a pas de réponse simple. Au-delà des statistiques, il faut examiner la culture municipale (et provinciale) pour appréhender correctement le phénomène du vélo urbain.

L’état des lieux: le Québec

Un constat s’impose: la culture dominante en matière de transport, au Québec comme au Canada, est celle de la voiture. On se rappellera l’horreur de touristes danois devant l’ampleur de l’espace public sacrifié à l’automobile. C’est sans surprise que l’on conçoit plutôt le vélo comme un sport que comme un moyen de tran-sport. Cela dit, comme sport, le vélo est populaire: plus de la moitié des adultes québécois le pratiquerait, deux fois plus qu’aux États-Unis. Néanmoins seul 2% de la population l’utilise comme moyen de transport. Bien que le Québec soit à la tête du peloton nord-américain, la conclusion est claire: c’est une pratique marginale.


À Montréal, pour le transport comme pour la mode, la marginalité est la norme.

D’emblée, le système de transport en commun montréalais est loin en avant de tous les autres de la province. Bien que la Ville de Montréal compte moins du tiers des habitants de la province, la STM y effectue 70% des déplacements de transport en commun du Québec.

Néanmoins, Montréal donne beaucoup à l’automobile. L’espace que l’on consacre au stationnement et la largeur des rues sont comparables aux autres grandes villes d’Amérique du Nord. Depuis près d’un siècle, on construit pour permettre la fluidité et la rapidité des déplacements motorisés. Or, cet objectif rend les transports actifs plus dangereux: lors d’un accident entre un piéton ou un cycliste et une voiture, les chances de survie sont huit fois plus élevées si la voiture roule à 30 km/h plutôt qu’à 50 km/h. Malgré cela, la limite de 50 km/h continue de prévaloir sur les boulevards urbains.

Le vélo progresse tout de même tranquillement. Le nouveau maire, Denis Coderre, n’est pas réputé pour son amour du vélo. Malgré cela, il s’est engagé à sauver Bixi d’une fermeture imminente, à améliorer les infrastructures de vélo d’hiver et vient d’annoncer réserver une voie pour les vélos sur St-Denis à l’heure de pointe.

Ce faisant, le maire ne bouleverse rien, il suit simplement le courant. Depuis la fin des années 90, le vélo urbain progresse année après année; de 2008 à 2013 le nombre de trajets en vélo a augmenté de plus de 50%. Dans les quartiers centraux, l’utilisation du vélo est donc comparable aux pays européens.


On ne peut toutefois parler de vélo en ville sans parler de sécutité.

L’an dernier, nous avons tous pleuré Mathilde Blais, morte écrasée par un camion-remorque en avril. Au cours de l’été, d’autres sont morts et ont été blessés. La communauté cycliste utilise ces événements tragiques pour attirer l’attention du public sur les problèmes de réglementation et d’aménagement à l’origine de ces accidents.

Pour Mathilde, par exemple, on a invité les médias à une cérémonie sous le viaduc où elle a été happée. On a pu montrer au public la façon dont les voies rétrécissent dans ce « tunnel de la mort », augmentant les chances d’accidents. En réponse, les élus municipaux ont rapidement décrétés qu’il serait désormais permis d’utiliser les trottoirs à vélo sous ces tunnels.

Cette stratégie médiatique a cependant l’effet pervers d’être effrayante. L’été dernier, ma grand-mère m’a demandé, inquiète, si je faisais toujours du vélo à Montréal. Elle trouvait que ça avait l’air dangereux. Combien de gens ne se mettront jamais au vélo parce qu’on leur a trop dit que c’était risqué?
La couverture médiatique des accidents ne rend toutefois pas justice aux faits. Avec 110 blessés graves et 1 759 blessés légers, le bilan de 2011 reste lourd. Ces chiffres ont toutefois diminué de 15 % par rapport à 2006, malgré l’augmentation de la pratique du vélo. Bien que le bilan réel soit plus rassurant, la sécurité perçue importe davantage que la sécurité réelle dans la décision d’enfourcher un vélo en ville. La communauté cycliste doit donc “parler des deux côtés de la bouche”: dire aux décideurs que les infrastructures actuelles sont insuffisantes et dangereuses; dire au public que le vélo est une pratique sécuritaire et saine!

Réforme du Code de la Sécurité Routière (CSR)

Le décès de Mathilde Blais et le débat qui a suivi ont poussé le nouveau ministre des Transports du Québec, Robert Poëti, à mettre en place un groupe de travail sur la réforme du Code de la Sécurité routière. Ainsi, parce que le vélo s’impose comme moyen de transport dans quelques arrondissements à Montréal, on modifie une loi provinciale!

Cette réforme est bienvenue. Comme les villes américaines, le CSR a été pensé pour les automobilistes et contient plusieurs incongruités.

Même en plein jour, il est interdit de se promener sans avoir les six réflecteurs règlementaires (art 232). Malgré les dangers de l’emportiérage, on doit circuler à l’extrême droite de la chaussée (art 487). On interdit aux automobilistes de dépasser les cyclistes sans avoir un espace suffisant (art 341), mais on ne définit pas «suffisant»: cet article n’est donc jamais appliqué. Les vélos sont plus lents et légers que les voitures, donc moins dangereux, mais on les oblige quand même à s’immobiliser complètement devant les panneaux d’arrêts (art 368).

Tous les groupes présents à la table de discussion s’entendent pour modifier ces dispositions. Même le SPVM tolère généralement qu’on les enfreigne.

Un code qui favorise le partage sécuritaire de la route fournirait une fondation solide au développement du vélo dans le reste du Québec. Difficile toutefois de dire ce qui en resortira. On parle de l’ajout d’un principe de prudence au préambule. D’augmenter les amendes pour l’emportiérage et les infractions commises à vélo.

Qui vivra verra.


Using the Full Mandate: Strengthening the Role of Peace and Human Rights in the UN’s Approach to Global Environmental Governance

Ken Conca is professor of international relations in the School of International Service at American University. His teaching and research focus on global environmental governance, water politics and policy, and environment, conflict and peacebuilding. He is the author/editor of several books, including Governing WaterEnvironmental PeacemakingConfronting ConsumptionThe Crisis of Global Environmental GovernanceThe State and Social Power in Global Environmental Politics, and the forthcoming An Unfinished Foundation: The United Nations and Global Environmental Governance (Oxford University Press, 2015).

UNEP, Tour Mirabeau, Paris.  Attribution: Hugo, 1 Oct 2007 |

UNEP, Tour Mirabeau, Paris | Attribution: Hugo, 1 Oct 2007, Photo Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.


Effective responses to global environmental problems require a strong role for the United Nations. For all its flaws, the UN remains the only plausible forum for engaging broadly global challenges. It is the only venue in which a sufficiently wide range of voices may be heard as we seek to forge a robust consensus on difficult environmental problems. It has been the most important catalyst for negotiating international environmental agreements among nations, and the most important focal point for disseminating new ideas and practices for better environmental stewardship. Indeed, the most important environmental accomplishments of the past forty years—the rise of global environmental awareness, the birth of key ideas such as sustainability, and negotiation of several important treaties for environmental protection—all bear the UN stamp in one way or another.

Yet, accomplishments notwithstanding, the UN record on the environment contains far too many examples of failure, inaction, and disappointment. The fabric of international environmental law, though not entirely threadbare, contains too many tears and missing strands. Progress on sustainable development has been uneven, to put it charitably. The UN Environment Programme, which exists in theory to coordinate and catalyze UN activities on the issue, has the annual budget of a small liberal arts college. The UN’s “Rio+20” environmental summit of 2012 epitomized the growing drift and political stagnation, with governments unable to agree on any of the key agenda items: the pathway to a “green economy”, institutional reform of the UN’s environmental activities, the structure of a high-level body to replace the ineffectual Commission on Sustainable Development, a governing framework to protect the world’s oceans, or the content of a new set of Sustainable Development Goals. On the eve of the meeting, most of the proposed language for the summit’s outcome document remained contested. The resulting text, titled “The Future We Want,” was a jumbled amalgam of past commitments and vague ambitions. Gro Brundtland, who three decades earlier had chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development and its path-breaking report, Our Common Future, found the product wanting: “We can no longer assume that our collective actions will not trigger tipping points, as environmental thresholds are breached, risking irreversible damage to both ecosystems and human communities. These are the facts – but they have been lost in the final document.”[ii] A prominent activist, Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace International, put it more succinctly, tweeting “longest suicide note in history.”[iii]

The causes for this state of affairs are many: low funding levels, poor administrative coordination, lack of political will from important member-states, powerful resistance from actors who benefit from environmental degradation, global financial instability, and the sheer scope of the planet’s challenges. A less noticed but no less important problem, however, is paradigmatic: the UN has institutionalized a highly selective approach to environmental challenges—one that defines the task too narrowly, fails to connect it to key parts of the organization’s mission, and leaves unused some of the UN’s most important tools.

The UN Charter sets out powerful aspirations for the world’s nations and peoples. The charter mandates the global organization to pursue a four-part mission of international peace and security (“to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”), human rights (“the dignity and worth of the human person”), international law (“respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law”) and development (“social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom”). When it comes to the environment, however, the UN approach engages only some of those aspirations. Virtually all of the efforts, programs and initiatives reside in two of the aforementioned mandate domains: international law, in the form of treaties codifying issue-specific environmental regimes; and development, following the Brundtland Commission’s famous definition of sustainable development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[iv] The UN’s grand strategy for global environmental governance is, essentially, to seek better law between nations and better development within them.

But the Charter of the United Nations stands on four legs, not two. The UN approach has, for the most part, failed to see environmental problems as matters of peace and international security or as a core component of human rights. Thus, while the Economic and Social Council is deeply immersed in environmental matters, the Security Council almost never addresses environmental issues—and when it does, much of the discussion is spent questioning why a “development” and “legal” matter has been brought before the Council in the first place. Environmental treaties occupy significant time and attention from member-states—while the other great body of international law for which the UN is chiefly responsible, the law of human rights, has had almost nothing to say about the environment. Rio+20 was silent on whether there exists a human right to a safe and healthy environment, or on the links between human rights and sustainability, or on what a rights-based approach to building a green economy would look like. This silence came despite a terse letter from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to member-states shortly before the meeting, warning of rights-related flaws in the negotiating text and pleading that the conferees “fully integrate key human rights considerations.”[v] As with rights, so with peace: the assembled governments had nothing to say about violent conflict over natural resources, the environmental toll of war, or how to tap the peacebuilding opportunities inherent in cooperative governance of natural resources.

This failure to see our planetary challenges as matters of peace and human rights, or to use the tools of those mandate domains, has profound consequences. It prevents the UN from making progress on several of today’s thorniest environmental problems—including climate change, the loss of the world’s forests, water resources management, and the control of toxic pollution. Worse, it simultaneously undercuts efforts to achieve peace and strengthen human rights. Environmental degradation and natural resource plunder are part and parcel of a wide swath of conflict episodes and human rights abuses. Failure to see and address these problems in those terms undermines the entirety of the UN’s four-part mission.

Why pay greater attention to the peace-and-rights dimensions of environmental problems? One reason is to break the cycle of vulnerability. For far too many of the world’s peoples, environmental degradation, conflict, and economic marginalization interact to create downward spirals that repeatedly undermine human security and defeat efforts for human development. Peace is critical to breaking out of this downward spiral, because conflict undercuts efforts for sustainable development and increases the risks associated with disasters and extreme events. Conflict also undercuts a nation’s capacity to comply with its international environmental commitments and responsibilities, causing local consequences to reverberate globally. Natural resources can be a key element in sustained or recurrent episodes of violent conflict; thus, conflict-sensitive resource management is crucial to breaking the cycle.

Human rights, too, are crucial to breaking the cycle. Rights-based approaches make it possible to secure access to livelihood resources, while protecting those resources from ill-conceived schemes for economic development. A large body of evidence shows that environmental protection works best when citizens’ procedural rights have real meaning in the corridors of environmental policy, municipal planning, and economic development.[vi] Rights are also crucial to fending off dubious approaches to environmental protection, which too often seek to accomplish abstract global aims at great local expense—yielding neither effective environmental protection nor social justice. Global recognition of human rights to breathable air and drinkable water can also empower “naming and shaming” campaigns to hold governments accountable for rhetorical commitments they make in international forums.

A second reason to bring peace and human rights on board in environmental efforts is the important regulatory and accountability functions they can play. The ability of citizens to press rights-based claims is a critical tool to thwart destructive agendas that undercut the common good. This fact is well recognized in local terms, but in a globalized world economy it must also be applied to the global chains of production that snake across national borders, beyond the regulatory reach of individual nation-states. Too often, harmful activities hide in the unregulated space between national laws and global agreements, beyond the reach of either. Despite early optimism that market-based forces such as green product certification could fill the gap, it is increasingly clear that socially responsible shopping is no substitute for strong protections at the source of the problem. Without global recognition of those protections as human rights, there will always be another neighborhood—and another country—onto which the harmful effects can be externalized, exported, and dumped. Conflict is also a central element in this equation, because the lawlessness and impunity surrounding the production of “conflict resources” for global markets is an extreme, and all too common, example of the larger problem.

A third reason why environmental efforts must become more peace-centered and rights-centered is the opportunity for positive synergies. Environmental protection is well recognized as a public good, but we tend to view the nature of that good narrowly in terms of welfare gains. Designed properly, environmental cooperation can also have strong confidence-building and trust-enhancing benefits. Such initiatives, often referred to as environmental peacebuilding, afford governments with an opportunity to transcend the zero-sum mentality of scarcity around shared resources and realize powerful shared gains through more effective cooperation.[vii] More broadly, designing environmental initiatives to be more conflict-sensitive, peace-enhancing and rights-affirming can be a powerful tool in replacing the destructive downward spirals flagged earlier with upward-trending positive synergies.

A final reason to engage the full force of the UN’s four-part mandate in environmental efforts is the often-invoked concept of a “system-wide” UN response. In UN parlance, the term means mobilizing all parts of the UN system to achieve an overarching goal. The importance of doing so is widely noted in UN circles, and has become a central theme in the debate about how to overcome fragmentation and promote effective reforms.[viii] Currently, the absence of the peace-and-rights parts of the UN system from the conversation means that “system-wide” environmental efforts are limited to tepid initiatives such as the “Greening the Blue” campaign to improve the UN’s environmental footprint. Worse, the current state of affairs creates opportunities for governments to play a cynical game of venue-shifting and self-contradiction. Thus, the United States can fail to acknowledge its substantial responsibility for climate change and shed commitments it made under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—but then laud the very same UNFCCC as the proper venue when trying to keep environmental human rights off the radar of the UN Human Rights Council. Or, China can warn the Security Council not to butt into the sensitive negotiations of the UNFCCC process, only to prove quite ready to abandon that process for a side deal with the US at the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks. Until the environment resonates across the full scope of the UN mandate, a truly system-wide response remains impossible—and this sort of ducking, dodging and venue-shifting will remain the norm across the fragmented institutional landscape.

How can the UN’s environmental efforts be transformed along the lines suggested by this argument? Doing so means making those efforts rights-based, accountability-oriented, conflict-sensitive, and peace-enhancing. There are pockets within the UN where connections between the environmental agenda, human rights, and peace and security are already being made: in the highlighting of climate change as a human rights issue by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; in the work of the Human Rights Council’s special expert on environmental human rights; in the way small-island developing states have challenged the Security Council to see climate change as a threat to their survival; in the work UN-Women has done on the links between natural resource management and the circumstances of women in war-torn societies; and in the “environmental peacebuilding” initiatives of the UN Environment Programme and other organs. To fully tap the synergies, however, a more ambitious reform agenda is required:

  • Find an explicit human right to a safe and healthy environment. It is time for the Human Rights Council to act on this issue, which has been slowly grinding its way through the UN’s human-rights machinery since the early 1990s.
  • Acknowledge an environmental “responsibility to protect”. The UN has acknowledged that the international system has duties when a state is unable or unwilling to protect its citizens from war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Environmental challenges are quite different—yet, as climate change drives rising sea levels and increases the risks from extreme weather, pressures will only intensify on the UN system to resolve the ambiguity of the legal and moral questions surrounding how to protect people from these consequences.
  • Find a legitimate–and limited–environmental role for the UN Security Council. The Council will never be (and should not be) the primary venue for environmental matters in the UN system. But the Council is woefully under-equipped to understand how climate change, water scarcity, and natural-resource conflicts are affecting its peacekeeping and other operations. And it can play an important agenda-setting function at a time when global environmental diplomacy has faltered, reminding the world that strengthened environmental cooperation is urgently needed for there to be international peace and security.
  • Exploit opportunities for environmental peacebuilding. Cooperation around shared resources and ecosystems can, if properly managed, heal wounds, build trust, create shared benefits, and perhaps even begin to forge elements of shared identity. Such initiatives are an important alternative to “securitization” of the environmental issue, which risks bringing the wrong actors to the table and reinforcing a zero-sum mentality rather than a cooperative ethos. The UN’s post-conflict recovery activities are a natural setting for such efforts, but it is crucial that they also be extended upstream to include preventive efforts—for example, strengthening the transparent, equitable, and sustainable governance of natural resources as a way to head off conflict risks.
  • Infuse the law-and-development approach with stronger peace-and-rights practice. International recognition of procedural rights to environmental information, participation in decision forums, and redress of grievances must be strengthened. Ongoing efforts to craft international environmental law, including the climate talks and various sets of negotiations around shared river basins, need a strong infusion of rights-based provisions, as well as stronger and more legitimate conflict-resolution mechanisms. The same is true of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Fostering better law between nations and better development within them is surely part of the task of global environmental governance. But using the tools of human rights and peacebuilding—thus bringing to bear the full scope of the UN mandate—is just as important.

New York - United Nations "No Guns," | Attribution: David Paul Ohmer 28 Oct 2008, Photo Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

New York – United Nations “No Guns,” | Attribution: David Paul Ohmer 28 Oct 2008, Photo Courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

[i] This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming book An Unfinished Foundation; The United Nations and Global Environmental Governance (Oxford University Press, 2015).

[ii] Thalif Deen, “RIO+20: Promised Green Economy Was a Fake, Say Activists.” Inter Press Service News Agency, June 22, 2012. Available at http://www.ipsnews.net/2012/06/rio20-promised-green-economy-was-a-fake-say-activists/, viewed 1 December 2014.

[iii] Kumi Naidoo via @kuminaidoo, 9:06 AM, 19 Jun 2012. Available at https://twitter.com/kuminaidoo/status/215113320632561664, viewed 1 December 2014.

[iv] World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[v] Open letter of Navanethem Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights, to UN member-states, 30 March 2012.

[vi] World Resources Institute, Closing the Gap: Information, Participation, and Justice in Decision-making for the Environment (Washington, DC: WRI, 2002).

[vii] Ken Conca and Geoffrey D. Dabelko, eds., Environmental Peacemaking (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press and Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2002).

[viii] See United Nations, Delivering as One: Report of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on UN System-wide Coherence in the Areas of Development, Humanitarian Assistance, and the Environment, 9 November 2006.

Green Real Estate: Market Innovation Outpaces Legal Facilitation

Deborah Curran is the Hakai Professor in Environmental Law and Sustainability at the University of Victoria Faculty of Law. 

This post is adapted from a forthcoming book chapter Deborah Curran, “Green Developments: New Entanglements of Property, Planning and the Public Interest” in Anneke Smit and Marcia Valiente (eds.) Public Interest, Private Property: Law and Planning Policy in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, forthcoming 2015).

Macallen Building, Boston, Leed Gold Certification |  Attribution: Trevor Patt, Wikimedia Commons.

Macallen Building, Boston, Leed Gold Certification |
Attribution: Trevor Patt, Wikimedia Commons.

Buildings have long been recognized as a key sustainability issue given their prevalence, resource intensity and, in recent years, disposable nature. In the past decade the operation of buildings has come under scrutiny as a significant greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter, responsible for more than 40 percent of global energy use and emitting 33 percent of GHGs irrespective of their location in the Global North or South. In Canada, buildings account for 12 percent of emissions even though owner/managers have undertaken energy retrofits on over 40 percent of floor space since 2005, and in many cities generate more than 50 percent of total GHG emissions.

Given this ecological footprint and the already well-regulated public safety aspect of buildings in many countries, creating building standards that decrease the environmental impact of building construction, operation and demolition would appear to be a simple legal fix. However, although there have been significant improvements in building codes at the provincial and U.S. state levels, innovation in greening buildings is flowing primarily from the private sector, professional organizations and local governments. Building regulators are often lagging behind what the industry is capable of achieving for water and energy efficiency, GHG-neutral buildings, and even living buildings that have a net positive effect on resource generation.

Compared with buildings constructed to the standards established by most building codes a “green” building uses less energy and water to operate, and is built with materials that have less ecological impact or better health outcomes for occupants. Hallmarks of green buildings are superior insulation, low flow water fixtures, and energy efficient systems, appliances and fixtures that result in upwards of fifty percent reductions in water and energy use. They can also increase productivity in the workplace, and, except when meeting the highest green standard, are comparable in cost to conventional construction. Applied at a neighbourhood scale, green development can contribute to municipal-wide goals for smart growth, creating compact complete communities where access to multi-modal transportation networks and affordable housing respond to residents’ needs in all stages of life. Attached units in buildings located in a compact urban form that include shops and services located near transit are more energy efficient than single detached housing, reduce the need for single occupancy vehicles and significantly decrease GHG emissions.

Even through the downturn in the construction industry after the subprime mortgage collapse in the U.S. in 2008, the awareness of green buildings has proliferated. The most compelling evidence of the strength of this interest is the number of industry-lead registrations and certifications of green buildings. For example, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) high performance building rating system, created by the United States Green Building Council, is used in 140 countries around the world. Since 2004, in the United States there are over 93,000 bedrooms in LEED certified buildings, with Brazil having 871, China 1961, and India 1928 registered and certified projects. In India alone there are 833 million square feet of LEED certified floor space. The 1633 LEED certified projects in Canada have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 512,672 tonnes and saved 5.6 billion litres of water.

Following industry-lead green building innovation are programs of private organizations intended to stimulate changes in professional or building management practices. For example, Architecture 2030 is a challenge to the global architecture and building communities to embrace energy, fossil fuel and greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets of 60 percent below regional or country averages. At a building-specific level the Real Property Association of Canada is promoting a “20 by ‘15” energy target for office buildings. The goal is to reduce energy use per square foot of rentable space to 20 equivalent kilowatt hours per year by 2015. Even law schools are jumping into the action at the behest of university sustainability policies with Cornell and the University of British Columbia producing the two most recent new high performance buildings for law schools.

Finally, municipalities are solid supporters of green building as they are the direct beneficiaries of taking a demand management approach to building deconstruction and the use of municipal services such as water. Several large cities have created their own green building programs and standards, such as Toronto’s Green Standard, specific to different building types, that must be met in applications for planning approval. The City of Vancouver will be requiring all new one and two-family homes to be carbon neutral by 2030.

With this critical mass of activity and innovation in the public interest from those who generate buildings – the building industry – and those that implement building standards – local governments – one would expect comparable activity in the development of green building regulations. However, most green building achievements have been voluntary and undertaken without regulatory backup. In many areas building codes still lag behind basic green building requirements, and senior government law reform typically has not kept pace with standard green building practice. While some municipalities, as the implementing authority for building codes, would like to require all buildings to adhere to a green building standard that exceeds the current building code, state and provincial governments retain control over minimum building regulations to maintain an even playing field across all local jurisdictions. Most municipalities, except for some, like the City of Vancouver, that have augmented building jurisdiction, are prohibited from exceeding the standards established by senior government.

Take British Columbia as an example. Section 692 of the Local Government Act, RSBC 1996 c 323 provides authority for the provincial government to establish a building code with standards governing the construction, alteration, repair or demolition of buildings, and this building code applies to all regional districts and municipalities. The British Columbia Building Code Regulations BC Reg Nos 216/2006 and 264/2012 establish these standards. In addition, under sections 693.1(2) of the Local Government Act and 9 the Community Charter, S.B.C. 2003, c 26, local governments may seek additional authority to regulate buildings by bylaw if the bylaw is approved by the Minister, enacted under a regulation, or enabled by agreement between a local government and a provincial Ministry. This additional authority is contemplated in the Buildings and Other Structures Bylaws Regulation BC Reg No 86/2004, which, however, states that bylaws may not establish standards that are additional to or different from those set out in the Building Code. Therefore, except with express permission of the Minister or by agreement, local governments must adhere strictly to the provincial regulations.

In this context, the platinum rating under the LEED certification for the world-renowned Dockside Green, located in the City of Victoria, and that set a world record for high performance building, was not required by regulation. The additional effort to produce all of the heat energy needed on the site, treat all the wastewater, and remediate the soil contamination, resulting in buildings that use 65 percent less water than in a conventional building, is outside of the regulatory standards for buildings and infrastructure.

The good news is that green building innovation is largely possible under existing building code regulation. The challenge is to accelerate law reform to make green buildings the new norm for the industry that has clearly proven that high performance buildings are achievable. With all stakeholders onside, retooling state and provincial building codes to more effectively reduce the GHG emissions from resource use within buildings should be a relatively easy sustainability fix.

Wayne L. Morse United States Courthouse, Leed Gold Certification.  | Attribution: Derek Severson, Wikimedia Commons.

Wayne L. Morse United States Courthouse, Leed Gold Certification. | Attribution: Derek Severson, Wikimedia Commons.

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