Why separatism won't save the planet


Environmental protection is overtaking language protection as one of the Parti Quebecois' central arguments for sovereignty. The idea is that only by being independent can Quebec seriously cope with looming environmental problems.
That was the conclusion reached the other day by three young Pequiste MNAs after they consulted on the party's future with party members in 15 cities across the province. "The blue revolution (sovereignty) is the route for realizing the green revolution, and the green revolution is the trademark of the blue revolution," wrote the party's so-called three musketeers -- Alexandre Bourdeau, Stephan Tremblay and Jonathan Valois.
The three, who carried out the brainstorming tour at PQ leader Andre Boisclair's behest, even suggest sovereignty would permit Quebec to become a kind of international missionary: "Quebec would become a country specializing in and devoted to applying sustainable development and promoting it in the rest of the planet." Many nationalists are giving this vision a warm welcome.
But there's just one problem with such thinking: reality.
Two kinds of environmental problems exist: a) climate change and b) everything else -- that is, conventional pollution. Let's start with climate change.
In North America today, some enterprising provinces and many states and cities are, indeed, taking initiatives against global warming. This is by default: The national governments are inert.
But the years are numbered on the spectacular leadership void in Washington and Ottawa. Prompted by natural disasters, the U.S. will eventually show the sort of concern that Europe has demonstrated and adhere to Kyoto or its successor accords. Canada will no longer have an excuse to drag its feet.
These international accords will set stringent limits on greenhouse-gas emissions, and the bigger the country the greater will be its influence in negotiating those limits. Granted, Canada would have little clout, but an independent Quebec would have even less.
If a sovereign Quebec wanted to do even better than any accord required, it could do so. But it is just as free to do so as a province, as the Charest government is demonstrating: Its plan to push energy conservation and public transit, announced three weeks ago, is bolder than anything the federal government and most other provinces are doing.
If Quebec wants to be a missionary on the issue, excellent, but it can be most effective by staying in Canada.
Alberta's oil sands are one of the planet's leading sources of greenhouse gases. By remaining in Canada, Quebec has the potential to help elect a federal government that will act on this.
The second kind of environmental problem, regular air and water pollution, has to be looked at separately because international accords have little to do with it.
Quebec now sets it own limits on smog, solid waste and pollution in lakes and streams. As a sovereign country, it could also set rules against polluting the St. Lawrence River and other navigable waterways, which are now in the feds' bailiwick.
But the problem would be law enforcement. From the early days of environmental awareness in the 1970s to today, Quebec always been a Shangri-La for polluters.
Last year, for example, Quebec fines to all polluters totalled a meagre $1.3 million. In Ontario and U.S. states, individual companies get hit with fines several times that -- and executives go to jail.
The big reasons for Quebec's leniency are the political uncertainty and high taxes that deter investment. PQ and Liberal governments alike look the other way at dirty industry. With per-worker investment the second-lowest in Canada after Prince Edward Island, Quebec takes what investment it can get.
In a sovereign Quebec, this would only worsen. Business and workers would leave, taxes would rise because of fewer taxpayers. Economic issues would swamp us. Citizens of the new republic could wave the environment goodbye.
The three musketeers are right about one thing: For sovereignty to make sense, it must be able to solve the big problems of tomorrow.
Better find some other problems, guys.
HENRY AUBIN is a columnist for the Montreal Gazette.

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