Public Policy Developments WCS Canada is watching in 2024



In this rundown of upcoming initiatives, we look ahead at some of the big public policy decisions expected in 2024 and explain what outcomes we will be pressing for from each. 

Contents

Doing a better job of avoiding and lessening impacts

Properly valuing nature and natural systems

Thinking big - and transformative

From the federal government’s efforts to draft a new National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan that can be a cornerstone for efforts to reverse the current decline of biodiversity across Canada to provincial efforts like the commitment by the British Columbia government, in collaboration with First Nations, to create a new comprehensive framework for better protecting nature, these policies, if done right, could be turning points in our efforts to protect nature and curb climate change.

Read: Tracking policy developments is just as important as tracking wildlife

At the same time, we will be closely tracking policy changes that could worsen the current biodiversity and climate crisis, such as efforts to weaken the federal Impact Assessment Act or policies that spur mineral development in intact northern areas without putting in place safeguards for carbon-rich peatlands.

Dealing with the constant flow of new laws, policies and regulations from 10 provinces, three territories and the federal government means we have to focus on where we believe we can have the greatest impact and where our science will be the most useful in adding insight for decision makers. It also means working hard to communicate new approaches and a new vision for how governments can make smarter decisions that will benefit people and nature today and tomorrow. It is not glamorous work, but it is critical if we want to maintain and restore this country’s tremendous natural legacy.

Doing a better job of avoiding and lessening impacts

The policies and initiatives in this section represents opportunities to both improve our understanding of the real long-term impacts of development decisions and trends (increased demand for minerals or ship traffic) and ones that pose a potential threat of weakening or entrenching already inadequate mechanisms for ensuring we don’t further harm vital natural systems.

AMENDMENTS TO CANADA’S IMPACT ASSESSMENT ACT

What it’s about:

In October, 2023, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) issued an opinion on the Impact Assessment Act (2019) (IAA), finding it to be unconstitutional in part because it infringed on areas of law that are under provincial control. The federal government has responded by saying it will address the issues highlighted by the SCC through amendments to the legislation in early 2024.

What we are looking for:

  • Any changes to the act should strictly address clarifying how the act applies to issues or projects that are within federal jurisdiction. The government should resist pressure to weaken the act in the name of so-called “efficiency” or “streamlining” and instead recognize the urgent need for legislation that provides a modern approach to impact assessment, particularly given the weaknesses of many provincial assessment regimes.

MINING LAWS AND POLICIES (INCLUDING CRITICAL MINERALS)

What it’s about:

The release of the Canadian Critical Minerals Strategy in late 2022 signaled Canada’s interest in positioning itself as a “global leader” in the production of critical minerals and the development of associated supply chains (e.g., smelting, manufacturing) to support the green energy transition. In 2024, we expect to see the introduction of policies that will enable implementation of the many commitments (including budgetary) included in the Strategy, including (but not limited to) updating the Critical Minerals list. We are also tracking emerging provincial and territorial critical minerals strategies, as well as efforts to reform century-old mining legislation in Yukon and changes to mining regulations in Ontario under its similarly antiquated legislation.

What we are looking for:

  • Our input on the Critical Minerals Strategy led to some improvements, most importantly an acknowledgement of the risks associated with mineral resource development in globally-significant peatlands. But the strategy is still too focused on short-term economic interests instead of creating a sustainable framework for Critical Minerals development. We will continue to call for increased attention to be paid to preventing mining development from exacerbating climate and biodiversity problems.
  • In Yukon, a modernized mineral exploration and development approach must recognize and be compliant with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). In keeping with the spirit and intent of the Umbrella Final Agreement (land claim settlement), resource development processes need to include Indigenous co-governance of all non-private lands in the territory.
  • The new mining exploration regime must replace the badly outdated free-entry staking system with one that requires consent from Indigenous governments and full input from Yukon citizens. The new regime must also establish rigorous requirements for the use of environmental best practices at all mining stages and provide the financial and other means to enforce these.
  • Recognition by the Ontario government that obtaining First Nations’ free prior and informed consent for proposed mineral development is vital and that the true barrier to mineral development in the province is a lack of good regional planning processes that can improve the efficiency, effectiveness and fairness of project planning and decision-making.

OCEAN NOISE STRATEGY

What it’s about:

With noise increasingly recognized as a key stressor for marine life, the federal government committed several years ago to develop an Ocean Noise Strategy. According to news reports, Fisheries and Oceans Canada says the long-delayed strategy will be published “before the end of the 2023-2024 fiscal year with an associated period of public engagement to immediately follow”.

What we are looking for:

  • Ensuring that the Ocean Noise Strategy includes measures tailored to the Canadian Arctic, with elements that reflect the unique conditions present in the Arctic marine environment (ice cover, etc.), while also addressing the impacts that underwater noise will have on Inuit subsistence and cultural activities. This work should include assessing vessel noise against current Arctic baseline noise levels, rather than against thresholds developed for other noisier marine environments, and a commitment to further research to better understand the effects of noise from different vessel classes on different species under different behavioural and ice conditions in the Arctic marine environments.
  • WCS Canada’s research on underwater noise in the Arctic can inform this work. We have helped to identify current baseline noise levels and the impacts of underwater noise on marine mammals in the western Canadian Arctic, and are supporting work on developing local management strategies to reduce impacts on marine mammals and Inuit subsistence activities.

PREVENTING FOREST DEGRADATION

What it’s about:

Canada is one of the world’s leading exporters of wood products, while insisting it is dedicated to the principles of sustainable forest management. Concerns about the health of Canadian forest ecosystems and their ability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate are growing, however. Fortunately, there are important opportunities on the horizon to enhance some provincial/territorial forest management policies (e.g., in Ontario and Yukon) that are up for review. At the same time, in response to a new EU regulation aimed at restricting the sale of products contributing to deforestation and degradation, Natural Resources Canada is coordinating the development of a domestic definition of “forest degradation,” promising to deliver a “robust, science-based, and transparent reporting framework”.

What we are looking for:

  • Any definition of forest degradation must focus on ecological and not economic indicators, using ecological integrity as the proper benchmark of forest degradation. It should reflect the commitments Canada has made through the Paris Climate Agreement and the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework to address forest degradation and retain ecological integrity. The definition should apply to all forests, not just those that are “managed” for forestry, which form just a part of Canada’s forest landbase. In fact, it should be designed to ensure the retention of large, undisturbed forests that are not currently part of the managed forest landbase while also preventing further degradation within logged forests.
  • Yukon’s updated Forest Resources Act and its associated regulations need to include a new forestry licensing regime that recognizes that different planning and operational approaches are needed for harvest of live trees (greenwood) in old conifer forest areas and deadwood from recently burned forests. It also should include regulatory tools and updates of existing standards and guidelines to incorporate new regional knowledge and adopt an ecosystem approach to managing forestry.
  • Updated Resource Road Regulations in Yukon that mandate the phased decommissioning of resources roads, including forestry and mining roads, to limit human disturbance after operations are finished.

Properly value nature and natural systems

When only short-term economic interests are considered in decision making, the process ignores the tremendous costs of further compromising natural systems and climate stability. These policies represent opportunities to take a more holistic and informed approach that properly integrates an understanding of what is at stake in wild areas and the importance of reversing biodiversity loss.

REGIONAL ASSESSMENTS UNDER THE FEDERAL IMPACT ASSESSMENT ACT

What it’s about:

In 2020, the federal government committed to conduct a regional assessment for the Ring of Fire area in the far north of Ontario. This year, we expect to see the Terms of Reference for this important assessment, which will consider the issues at stake in an area with significant mineral potential but also massive peatlands and important headwaters. The government has committed to “co-develop and co-lead” the development of the Terms of Reference with Indigenous leadership.

This initiative also dovetails with a process to develop an overarching policy framework for all regional assessments conducted under section 92 of the IAA, which is nearing completion and should be released in 2024.

What we are looking for:

  • As one of the three parties that recommended a Regional Assessment for the Ring of Fire, we have long advocated for a regional-scale assessment prior to the start of significant mineral development in the area to properly safeguard its biodiversity and climate values (including the second largest peatland complex in the world) and manage cumulative impacts effectively. The assessment must truly focus on sustainability for both nature and the communities of the region and not just follow the usual pattern of looking for ways to mitigate impacts.
  • We will be looking for meaningful co-leadership of the process by the First Nations, who represent the only communities located in the region. We also hope that the Government of Ontario will see this as a valuable opportunity to meet its constitutional obligations related to respecting Indigenous rights and to recognize the value of proactive management of cumulative impacts.
  • For the broader framework for regional assessments, we are seeking clear alignment with the purposes of the Impact Assessment Act, i.e., to foster sustainability; protect components of the environment within federal authority; ensure impact assessments strongly consider all effects based on science and traditional knowledge; respect Indigenous rights; and meaningful attention to cumulative effects.

THE NATURE-CLIMATE AGENDA

What it’s about:

Canada is starting its final push to achieve its 2030 GHG emissions reduction target of reducing GHG emissions to 40% below 2005 levels and get on track for net-zero by 2050. In the past two years, starting with the release of its Emissions Reduction Plan in March 2022, the federal government has taken significant steps to enable nature-based climate solutions. Funding and resources are being provided for natural solutions to climate change, such as the protection of forests and wetlands. At the same time, the federal government is advancing various initiatives to encourage an energy transition in support of climate objectives. For example, it is expected to finalize the oil and gas sector emissions cap by mid-2024.

For us, 2024 will be the year of assessing the performance of Canada’s recently implemented nature-based policies for climate and keeping an eye on further climate-relevant policies coming down the pipe.

What we are looking for:

  • As energy transition policies begin to take effect, it is critical that unintended and counterproductive climate policy outcomes are avoided or significantly mitigated, e.g., not undermining the carbon storage role of forests and peatlands via mineral development and reducing the impacts of renewable energy projects on species such as bats through careful siting, monitoring and management efforts.
  • Making the protection of large, intact carbon-rich landscapes like peatlands a formally recognized priority and enabling Indigenous-led stewardship of these landscapes to help ensure any development does not lead to major sources of GHG emissions that undermine Canada’s ability to meet climate targets.
  • For new provincial and territorial climate plans (e.g., Newfoundland and Labrador) to include robust actions and objectives that acknowledge the essential role of nature in addressing climate change.
  • Improving regulations to address the impacts of wind power development on bats that address where projects can safely to be located and how they can be operated in a way that lessens their impact on bats, particularly already at-risk migratory species.

PROTECTING SPECIES AT RISK

What it’s about:

As the 2023 Report on Species at Risk by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (CESD) pointed out, the federal government is not using its full authority to protect species at risk and their habitats under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). The commissioner called on Environment and Climate Change Canada to complete and implement policies on use of the safety net and emergency order tools found in SARA. These legislative powers can be used when provinces and territories fail to protect species at risk and their habitat. Unfortunately, these powers have rarely been used to benefit imperiled species.

We anticipate that efforts will accelerate in 2024 to complete several key SARA policies, including “Assessing Imminent Threats” and “Critical Habitat Protection” on non-federal lands.

What we are looking for:

  • The addition of Eastern Red Bat, Hoary Bat, and Silver-haired Bat to the public registry of federal species at risk. These are all migratory species that have experienced significant impacts from wind power development and fast action is needed to address and reduce these harms. With wind power development on the cusp of huge expansion, more attention must be paid to issues such as siting and habitat destruction.
  • A greater willingness from the federal government to provide meaningful leadership and use the tools at its disposal to track the extent to which provinces and territories are effectively protecting species at risk and their habitat. The federal government can use its resources (including, but not limited to Nature Agreements) to spur effective collaboration with the provinces on species protection.
  • Accelerate the process of acting on recommendations from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and end delays that can lead to species declining even more while lingering in listing limbo, thereby further delaying any meaningful recovery actions for years.
  • Address how changes to provincial and territorial resource policies, such as exemptions for forestry and proposed exemptions for mineral exploration in Ontario, could negatively affect species at risk, e.g., caribou and wolverine. More broadly, governments must consider impacts more carefully on species at risk in all resource development decisions, whether that is new waterpower development (lake sturgeon) or wind power development (bats).

Think Big – and Transformative

To tackle something as big as the combined biodiversity-climate crisis, we require much more than tweaking business-as-usual approaches. It is well past time to adopt much more ambitious and farsighted approaches to ensuring we act now to reverse climate and ecosystem damage and put in place measures that create healthier future directions for nature and people.

CANADA’S 2030 BIODIVERSITY STRATEGY

What it’s about:

Thanks to the adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (KMGBF) in Montreal last December, Canada is obliged to complete a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) by COP16 in late 2024. In late 2023, the federal government released what it calls a “Milestone Document” laying out how it intends to frame the 2030 Strategy in line with all four goals and 23 targets of the KMGBF. Following consultation (most importantly with provincial/territorial governments and Indigenous organizations) the finalized 2030 Strategy will serve as its NBSAP.

While the full KMGBF is undeniably complex and the task of implementing it effectively is challenging to contemplate, the requirement to develop the NBSAP presents an opportunity for the federal government to display the leadership that is so necessary for addressing the biodiversity crisis in coordination with action on climate.

What we are looking for:

  • Actions that represent an integrated approach whereby policies and actions of one federal department do not undermine those of another and promote policy coherence rather than conflict. This will require formal coordination mechanisms that can help ensure that all provincial and territorial government departments and agencies are pulling in the same direction to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030.
  • Full recognition (with robust funding commitments) of the critical role of Indigenous leadership in protection and monitoring of important areas throughout Canada.
  • Transformative actions that collectively elevate biodiversity as a priority, including the deliberate consideration of co-benefits and trade-offs between biodiversity and climate actions and safeguarding of high-integrity, carbon-rich ecosystems in keeping with Canada’s global responsibility.
  • A true “whole-of-government” approach that engages all federal ministries in the coordinated task of reversing biodiversity loss instead of the current siloed approach that puts the responsibility of addressing this “all-of-society" crisis on the shoulders of just one or two ministries.
  • A strong role for Key Biodiversity Areas, which can help us reach targets for species recovery and ecosystem protection among other things, and an overall emphasis on ensuring that new protected and conserved areas are protecting the most important places for nature.
  • Long-needed improvements to the quality and availability of biodiversity information across the federation including clear and measurable objectives and indicators that can be used to track and report on progress on each CBD target and support the federal government’s proposed Nature Accountability Bill.

LARGE-SCALE INDIGENOUS-LED CONSERVATION IN YUKON AND NORTHERN BC

What it’s about:

Thanks to land claim settlement agreements under the Yukon Umbrella Final Agreement, there are a number of land use planning initiatives underway in Yukon that are being led by self-governing First Nations. This presents an important opportunity to significantly increase areas protected from industrial disturbance in the territory.

The Dawson regional plan encompasses 39,854 square km -- a large and diverse area that covers 10% of the Yukon territory. A land-use plan for the region has been under development for several years and a final plan is expected within the next year. WCS Canada staff are working intensively with the Tr’ondëk Hwëchìn (TH) First Nation Government in a partnership to improve conservation outcomes in the Recommended Plan.

The First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun (FNNND) is also preparing for regional land use planning in their Northern Tutchone traditional territory, which is the next biggest planning region in the Yukon. Our staff are providing technical and scientific support to FNNND to promote and secure new protected areas as well as help finalize the Beaver River sub-regional plan.

Meanwhile, the Kaska Nations of Yukon and northern BC have steadfastly declined to cede rights and title to their combined Traditional Territories and instead have proposed Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas covering over ~100,000 square kilometers of ecologically diverse and mostly intact landscapes. WCS Canada staff provided technical support and scientific expertise to the development of the IPCA proposals of Ross River Dena Council and the BC Kaska.

What we are looking for:

  • Protection for at least 50% of the landbase in both planning areas and more holistic management approaches for areas where industrial use will still be allowed. These approaches should address conserving migratory and mountain caribou herds across their entire range; carefully limiting the development footprint so it is kept within ecological limits; removal of mineral tenures (claims) from all protected areas; and a focus on maintaining climate function and refugia within all areas.
  • A commitment by territorial, provincial, and federal governments to work with the Kaska Nations on the implementation of their proposed Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas.
  • In all planning processes, integration of First Nations approaches to conservation and co-governance models for better implementation of land use plans as well as Indigenous rights being upheld through land agreements and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

LEGISLATION AND POLICY CHANGES TO PROTECT BIODIVERSITY IN BRITISH COLUMBIA

What it’s about:

British Columbia has the greatest diversity of species at risk and globally threatened ecosystems and species in Canada. However, it also lacks modernized legislation to protect these natural riches. Recently, the provincial government has begun to address this disconnect with a number of important policy initiatives, including the “collaborative development” with rights holders and stakeholders of a draft Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health Framework (BEHF) in response to Recommendation 2 of the 2020 Old Growth Strategic Review.

Indeed, the mandate letter for the Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship issued in late 2022 includes explicit direction to “protect wildlife and species at risk…and….protect and enhance B.C.’s biodiversity” and implementation of the BEHF that "commits to the conservation and management of ecosystem health and biodiversity as an overarching priority…[to be formalized]…...through legislation and other enabling tools”. Moving in this direction will require, among other things, reform of existing provincial legislation (e.g., Wildlife Act and Forest & Range Practices Act), which we expect to start seeing progress on this in 2024.

What we are looking for:

  • These initiatives provide BC with an opportunity to address its weak and outdated legislative framework for safeguarding species and ecosystems and to begin to develop a proactive approach to conserving the province’s tremendous biodiversity and be a leader in Canada for transformative change.
  • A shift from a narrow focus on “habitat features” of individual species to incorporation of multi-species and large-scale habitat protections, including for old growth forests.
  • We and our partners have identified numerous Key Biodiversity Areas throughout the province that can provide building blocks for ambitious protected area commitments.

A FRESH START FOR MANITOBA BIODIVERSITY AND CLIMATE POLICIES

What it’s about:

Environmental concerns have received little attention in Manitoba in recent years, with key biodiversity and climate laws and regulations remaining unimplemented or unimagined. With a new government elected in late 2023, there is a fresh mandate for the new environment minister to take action. Priorities of particular relevance to WCS Canada include work with Indigenous communities to achieve the goal of protecting 30% of Manitoba’s diverse landscapes by 2030 and creating a “roadmap to meet net-zero targets by 2050”.

What we are looking for:

  • We have identified numerous Key Biodiversity Areas in Manitoba, many of which are inadequately protected. This is an opportunity for Manitoba to address its protected areas goal in a scientific manner.
  • Manitoba is the only province to have legislation to conserve and protect ecosystems through its Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act. This provides an opportunity to expand ecosystem-based approaches in Manitoba, which can serve as a model for other jurisdictions.
  • Manitoba contains the third largest peatland area (and associated carbon storage) in Canada. (Manitoba’s peatlands are exceeded in size and carbon content only by those in Ontario and the Northwest Territories.) As part of its roadmap for achieving net-zero targets, the province must address safeguarding these critical carbon storage areas.
  • Many emerging Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (IPCAs) in the province overlap with these carbon and biodiversity rich areas, making action on adopting IPCAs a potential win-win for the province.
Tracking policy developments is just as important as tracking wildlife

Tracking policy developments is just as important as tracking wildlife

Releasing a wolverine from a live trap can really get your heart pounding. Providing comments on a government policy, a lot less so.