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Scholarly Publications and Papers

An Environment-First Foreign Policy for Canada

Professor John Kirton,
Principal Investigator, EnviReform Project,
and Director, G8 Research Group, University of Toronto

Remarks prepared for an Experts Roundtable on
"Foreign Policy Dialogue: Environment and Canadian Foreign Policy,"
with the Honourable David Anderson, Minister of the Environment
Chateau Laurier Hotel, Ottawa
May 12, 2003


For the past 15 years, the polls on Canadian foreign policy have clearly shown that almost all Canadians have always placed "global environmental protection" and closely related values as their first priority for Canada’s involvement in the world (Kirton 2003, Kirton and Maclaren 2002). If one wants a foreign policy that responds to the deep-seated, durable desires of the Canadian people, that supports national unity and that furthers sustainable human development and security, the environment should stand alone in first place. In designing the architecture for Canadian foreign policy for the twenty-first century, the environment should be, not just another pillar, but the fundamental foundation on which the entire edifice is built.

The authoritative February 7, 1995 Government Statement on Canadian foreign policy, Canada and the World, long ago recognized the need for environmental primacy (Canada 1995). It did so by placing sustainable development as the only cross-cutting value that governed the application of the "three pillars" upon which the document was built. In doing so it followed a quarter century of doctrinal evolution in Canadian foreign policy, during which the environment steadily grew to assume first place (Kirton 2002). The 2003 Dialogue document overlooked this evolution and the government’s 1995 clear choice. It even demoted to second place the "prosperity" pillar where the links to the environment are most broadly accepted and well understood. It thus marked the first retreat for the environment in over thirty years – ever since Pierre Trudeau first introduced the priority of a "harmonious natural environment" in Foreign Policy For Canadians in June 1970.

Canadians’ and Canada’s deeply embedded and authoritatively affirmed desire for an environment-first foreign policy is reinforced by the effective international environmental leadership Canada has repeatedly displayed over the past decade. It has done so in constructing the Convention on Climate Change, the Convention on Biodiversity, the Convention on High Seas Overfishing and Straddling Stocks, the Cartegena Protocol, the Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, and the Arctic Council. In other fields, Canada’s ability to create a new generation of international institutions for the twenty-first century is seen in the recently established World Trade Organization, the Convention on Anti-Personnel Landmines, and the International Criminal Court. Canada can clearly pioneer the new international institutions required for good global governance in our rapidly globalizing age.

This unique combination of domestic support, approved government doctrine and international success form the foundation for a new Canadian foreign policy that puts the environment first, and that gives this priority expression in ambitious initiatives abroad and at home. The following passages outline a menu of such initiatives, covering the existing three pillars of Canadian foreign policy. These initiatives stand as examples of what could and should be done. They warrant consideration as leading candidates for action now. They flow from a belief that Canadians want their 2003 foreign policy dialogue to move quickly into action, through the development and implementation of feasible initiatives to be started in the short term and built on in sustained fashion to produce desirable long term effects.

Sustainable Prosperity

It has now been over 15 years since Canada sought to secure its prosperity through an ambitious program of trade liberalization, with a full suite of unilateral, bilateral, regional, and multilateral means. Trade now accounts for a majority of the private sector Canadian economy. The basic trade-environment linkages are now well understood. But an outward-looking Canadian economy in a globalizing era must now deal, not just with traditional trade liberalization, but with tightly interrelated foreign direct investment, finance, technology, and corporate governance as well. In this expanded terrain, some of the important links with the environmental have yet to be forged. There are several ways Canada can now start.

Sustainable International Accounts

Following the leadership of the Government of Canada, building on the analytic work of the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, Canada should spread internationally its new system of national accounts that incorporates changes in the country’s ecological capital balance (National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy 2003). This initiative should be affirmed as a contribution at the forthcoming meetings of G8 Finance Ministers on May 16, G8 leaders on June 1-3, and G20 finance ministers in the autumn of 2003. It should be increasingly infused as part of the standard analytical and statistical work of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and International Monetary Fund (IMF). This initiative would build on, and could be guided by, Canada’s successful initiative on environmental indicators at the French-hosted Paris G7 Summit in 1989. Canada could work here with Japan, whose proposal to launch an international joint research project on economy-wide material flow accounts was noted with interest in the May 2003 G8 environment ministers communiqué.

Sustainability Assessments of Economic Liberalization Agreements

Canada currently assesses its prospective trade liberalization agreements for their physical environmental effects within Canada. This exercise needs to be expanded in several ways. It should become, following the European Union’s (EU) lead, a full sustainability assessment that includes the critical social dimension. Canada has already accepted the need to include the social dimension in its approval of the Commission for Environmental Co-operation’s framework for assessing NAFTA’s environmental effects. This methodology goes well beyond the economically-inspired OECD framework constructed over a decade ago. Following the EU and NAFTA lead, Canadian assessments should include sustainability impacts within Canada’s liberalization partners and in affected third parties. Canada should work with these partners in an equal and inclusive assessment exercise. Assessments should be applied not just to trade but to direct investment and financial liberalization agreements as well. Within Ottawa, Environment Canada should equally co-chair the process that oversees such assessments. These expansions would give practical life to the need to integrate environmental, social and economic dimensions in inclusive partnerships, a need eloquently emphasized in the 2002 Banff G8 Environment Ministers’ communiqué.

Clean Canadian Investment Abroad

The world of the twenty first century is one in which foreign direct investment has become more important than traditional trade. Canada has become a net outward foreign direct investor with investments spread around the world. The highly visible environmental failures of a few of these Canadian firms abroad have recently damaged the commercial prospects and reputation of Canadian firms and Canadians as a whole. Canadian firms engaged in significant outward foreign direct investment should thus be encouraged to create and adopt a world-leading code of good environmental practice. Its implementation should be independently assessed. Government incentives could be mobilized, in a way consistent with international law, to reward firms that adopt and comply with the code.

Clean Trade Liberalization

Environment Canada could take the lead in developing an environmentally sound definition of the environmental products and services industry (EPI), for introduction into Canada’s trade system and the SIC and harmonized trade categories used abroad. It could further identify the most environmentally-damaging trade-related subsidies used at home. Canada’s trade negotiating positions and agreements could then be adjusted to liberalize the EPI sector and phase out the unsustainable subsidies first.

A Canadian Contribution to the G8 Clean Water Initiative and Fund

In the sphere of development, Canada could follow up on it leadership in the Kananaskis G8 Africa Action Plan by supporting at this year’s Evian G8 Summit the European Union’s initiative on clean water. Canada should further provide a proportional monetary contribution, and concentrate on, and showcase, areas where Canadian firms are pioneering the next generation of clean water technology.

A G8 Environment-Health Ministers Meeting on Global Health Monitoring and Response

The current SARS outbreak is an all-too-striking reminder of how prosperity and human life in the Canadian and global economy is vulnerable to infectious disease in a globalizing age. It is equally a reminder that the inherited international institutions cannot adequately monitor, detect and respond. SARS started as a result of poor regulatory and inspection regimes in the farms and food markets of China. It spread in part as a result of a poor sanitation system in an apartment complex in Hong Kong. It is thus an integrated economic-health-environmental crisis that warrants a similarly integrated response. Canada could use its influence with France, host of this years’ G8, to secure a meeting of G8 Health and Environment Ministers, ideally held in Toronto or Vancouver, to identify where the existing WHO system failed, how a better system can be born, and how similar problems such as West Nile virus can be addressed. More broadly, such a meeting would also restore the focus on environment-health issues that was so prominent at the 2002 Banff G8 Environment Ministers meeting, but that virtually disappeared at the Paris meeting in May 2003.

Sustainable Security

The traditional agenda of ‘environmental security" has changed considerably since it was first introduced. The war on terrorism has provided the new challenge of how environmental agents, such as anthrax and many forms of biological and chemical elements, can be secured and used by terrorists. The older concern with the "Sound Management of Chemicals" now has a much broader and more urgent claim. The recent war in Iraq has again shown how environmental aggression can be a weapon in, and a result of, war. Environmental scarcity can be one of the "root causes" of the poverty and deprivation from which terrorists can be bred. And while "water wars" seem to be largely limited to the always critical region of the Middle East, the illegal use of environmental resources such as logging and other natural resources plays a role in fuelling and financing deadly conflict on a much broader scale. Working through the G8 Foreign Ministers process and the broader G8 conflict prevention agenda, Canada could take several steps.

The Ecological Reconstruction of Iraq

Canada should devote a substantial portion of its postwar economic assistance to Iraq to environmental purposes, such as creating a new generation of Canadian-pioneered clean water systems, restoring the marshes in southern Iraq, and managing the petroleum industry in ways that reduce the damage to children’s health.

Ecological Stewardship for Conflict Prevention in Africa

Canada could broaden the British-bred prospective G8 Extractive Industries Transfer Initiative (EITI) to focus on critical industries such as forestry, where illegal practices create conflict and environmental harm. The Okinawa Summit’s action against illegal logging provides a foundation on which to build.

A Sustainability-Oriented Global Partnership on Weapons of Mass Destruction

At the 2003 Kananaskis Summit, Canada brokered and committed US$1 billion to a new Global Partnership on Weapons of Mass Destruction (GPWMD), backed by an initial US$10 billion fund. The immediate focus was on safely dismantling within Russia weapons of mass destruction that terrorists might consciously seek to secure and use to kill. In the year following, most of the money has been mobilized and directed toward destroying chemical weapons and abandoned nuclear submarines. Yet the Partnership recognized that the threat existed well beyond Russia. And the chemical weapons and nuclear submarines now so central can also inadvertently kill humans, wildlife and ecosystems every day, even should they never fall into terrorist hands. Canada could thus identify what other items in the WMD portfolio are most destructive to natural and human health in Russia and its neighbours, direct the already committed monies in "dual-use" fashion to these twin terrorist-environment threats, and seek additional donors for the GPWMD from countries most likely to give to the environmental cause.

Sustainable Culture

The promotion of Canadian values and culture abroad requires a focused understanding of what those foundational values are. Here the emphasis should be on Canada’s distinctive national values – those that unite and distinguish Canadians and justify their demand for a separate political community and sovereign country based on shared civic values in a world where there is no other consequential to give these values a strong voice. The 1995 Statement identified only values shared in common with the likeminded. The new foreign policy white paper should start with the distinctive, defining national values. Here global environmental protection stands alone in first place. There are two practical steps that could start to make such an affirmation real.

Sustainability Scholarships

The time is ripe for a new set of post-secondary, environmentally-specific scholarships with Canada’s key plurilateral partners, to assist young Canadians and their NAFTA, APEC, G8, Commonwealth and Francophonie colleagues develop a better first hand understanding of one another’s environmental challenges and solutions. This would foster a dynamic process of knowledge transfer focused on the next generation. Such scholarships could include support for basic, applied and practical work at universities, NGOs, research-oriented firms, research bodies and governments in partner countries, and at the secretariats of international institutions. As with the Fulbright Scholarship program, funding beyond federal government sources could be sought.

A DFAIT ADM for Global Environmental Protection

A casual glance at the DFAIT organizational structure assures anyone that Canada really cares about prosperity and security. For there is a senior level official – an Assistant Deputy Minister – in charge of those pillars and values alone. Values and Culture are also, if more elusively and generically, institutionally recognizable as well. But the environment exists only one level before, with a Director General in charge. The environment deserves an assistant deputy minister of its own, to respond to Canadians core distinctive foreign policy values, in a world where the environment, prosperity and security are now equally and integrally linked. Consideration could also be given to having Canada’s Minister of International Development Co-operation become the Minister of Sustainable Development instead.

Good Global Environmental Governance

It is difficult for some Canadians to envisage a foreign policy and system of global governance in which the United Nations and its galaxy of institutions does not command centre stage. Yet their government did so doctrinally in 1995 when the Prime Ministerially inspired opening passages of Canada and the World set forth a vision in which the United Nations had no place at all. The Government also did so in its actions in the spring of 1995 and of 1999 to prevent the extinction of fish stocks off Canada’s east coast and innocent Muslin men, women and children in more distant Kosovo. As Canada recognized when it hosted the 1995 G7 Summit in Halifax, the United Nations system badly needs reform if it is to be relevant in the new age. Yet since that time Canada and its powerful democratic G8 partners have moved from a focus on reforming the United Nations system forged in 1945, to replacing it with new set of institutions tailored to meet the realities of the twenty-first century world. In creating the new generation of good global environmental governance, it is equally necessary for Canada to move beyond the UN.

Compliance Monitoring of International Environmental Commitments

In order to ensure good global governance, it is important to encourage countries to comply with their internationally agreed commitments, through systematic, transparent professional monitoring processes. Working alone or with other countries in a coalition of the willing, Canada could initiate such compliance assessments, drawing on the resources of its scholarly community and government agencies such as the Auditor-General. Such a process could begin with the environmental commitments of the G8 Summit and its ministerial fora, and those in APEC and other priority bodies.

NAFTA for the Next Generation

When the North American Commission for Environmental Co-operation (CEC) was created in 1994, it was born with an annual budget significantly less than its architects had envisaged, in deference to Mexican concerns at the time. Now, more than a decade later, there has been a major increase in Canadian and North American GDP, population and environmental challenges. But given inflation, the CEC’s resources have steadily and now substantially declined in real terms. The time has come to support the Mexican government in its current desire to increase funding to the CEC, at least to the level in real terms it had in 1994. This and further increases should come as part of a process of considering the environmental elements in a "NAFTA for the Next Generation," as the tenth year anniversary of NAFTA’s founding arrives in 2004. NAFTA’s CEC and trade-environment regime has worked well for Canada during its first decade (Kirton 2003). It is worth investing in, financially and intellectually, so its will do so even more during its second decade as well.?.

G8 Environment Ministers Working Groups

The G8 Environment Ministers’ Forum, created in 1992 and institutionalized in 1994, was the first of the new generation of G8 ministerial bodies established as the era of globalization arrived. Yet unlike its ten successors, it has bred virtually no ongoing working level groups to implement and prepare its work and strengthen co-operation among some of the key environmental powers in the world. Canada should seek to deepen G8 environmental co-operation by identifying areas where there is a need for G8 working groups. Leading candidates include a continuation of the Renewable Energies Task Forced launched at the 2000 Okinawa Summit, support for the US initiative on a comprehensive, integrated earth observation system, and work in collaboration with other G8 institutions dealing with terrorism and health.

An Environment Ministers G20

Because some of the world’s leading environmental powers lie beyond the existing G8, there is a strong need to establish an annual, functionally designed G20 ministerial forum for the environment. It would build on current consultative processes, but be more institutionalized and have a process and work program more closely linked with that of the G20 finance ministers’ forum.

A Global Forestry Convention

At their 1990 Houston Summit, G7 leaders agreed to create within two years a global convention to protect the world’s forests. Yet over a decade later, this critical component of the world’s ecosystem, essential to both climate change and biodiversity, remains essentially unprotected. As one of the world’s largest exporters of forest products, Canada also remains ecologically vulnerable to unilateral boycotts and competing certification system mounted abroad. It could well be in Canada’s interest to initiate the creation of a global forestry convention, through a process similar to that which effectively and quickly produced the convention on anti-personnel landmines a few years ago. Such a new institution could start by extending Canada’s recent initiative in creating a new system of national parks and natural protected areas to the global community as a whole.

A World Environmental Organization

Physically, the world has a robust, comprehensive, integrated ecosystem under constant stress and change. Politically, it has a weak, incomplete, fragmented set of environmental institutions, with processes for effective co-ordination and overall direction that remain very limited indeed. In a world that has long had powerful international organizations for finance, development and now trade, the time has come to create a similarly strong World Environmental Organization (Kirton 2000, 2002). It would provide multilaterally the institutional equality and integration that Canada enjoys nationally and in NAFTA and that sustainable development demands.


Canada (1995), Canada in the World: Government Statement (Ottawa: Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, February 7).

Kirton, John (2003), "NAFTA’s Trade-Environment Regime and its Commission for Environmental Co-operation: Contributions and Challenges Ten Years On," Canadian Journal of Regional Science 25:2 (Summer): 135-163.

Kirton, John (2002), "Embedded Ecologism and Institutional Inequality: Linking Trade, Environment and Social Cohesion in the G8," in John Kirton and Virginia Maclaren, eds., Linking Trade, Environment and Social Cohesion: North American Experiences, Global Challenges (Ashgate: Aldershot), pp. 45-72.

Kirton, John (2000), "Creating Coherence in Global Environmental Governance: Canada’s 2002 Opportunity," Invited Paper prepared for a panel "Multilateral Environmental Agreements and Institutions: Making them Work in the Twenty-First Century World", at a conference on "Canada @ the World," sponsored by the Policy Research Secretariat, Westin Hotel, Ottawa, November 30-December 1, 2000.

Kirton, John and Virginia Maclaren (2002), "Forging the Trade-Environment-Social Cohesion Link, Global Challenges, North American Experiences," pp. 1-23, in John Kirton and Virginia Maclaren, eds., Linking Trade, Environment, and Social Cohesion: NAFTA Experiences, Global Challenges (Aldershot: Ashgate).

National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy (2003), Environment and Sustainable Development Indicators for Canada (NRTEE, Ottawa).

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