, Matt Scrafford
© Matt Scrafford

Tracking policy developments is just as important as tracking wildlife


Conservation planning



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

But helping make government policies better for nature is a big and important part of the work we do here at WCS Canada. That’s because these official laws, policies and regulations (and their implementation) matter – a lot.

Read: Public policy developments we're watching in 2024

The right policy can make a major difference in reducing or reversing environmental harms, such as policies to ban the pesticide DDT that saved many bird species (including peregrine falcons and bald eagles) or policies to eliminate the use of ozone-depleting chemicals. On the other hand, weak or ineffective policies can entrench practices that promote continued environmental degradation.

Too often, current policies are the latter – fragmented, out-of-date, and narrowly focused laws and regulations that are not equal to the task of reversing the rapidly escalating biodiversity and climate crisis. If our societal approaches to decision making on everything from resource development to protected areas are not in step with an ongoing commitment to ending biodiversity loss and addressing the climate emergency, our scientific work at WCS Canada is going to continue to turn up evidence of the steady worsening of these combined crises.

The need for new approaches

If there is one theme that runs through our policy work on everything from reforming mining laws to developing a comprehensive national biodiversity strategy it is the need for a fundamental shift in current approaches. This means re-thinking business-as-usual approaches to decisions like where to build mines and the roads that service them or how to ensure that massive natural carbon storage areas are still able to provide their essential services for generations to come.

This transformation ultimately requires a shift away from piecemeal and short-sighted development processes that rely on reducing environmental and cultural impacts one project at time, and toward proactive planning at larger and more comprehensive scales with an eye to anticipating and managing cumulative effects. It also requires firm recognition of the need for resource development decisions to go beyond only assessing short-term economic return and to instead fully consider the sustainability of proposed projects for current and future generations. That includes ensuring that benefits are maximized for people, nature and the climate.

There are three major components to changing our current failing approaches that are steadily driving species and ecosystems into deeper and deeper trouble (trends we have started tracking through our Shape of Nature initiative).

Three steps to change

The first is to do away with the ill-informed but all too common assumption that all environmental harms can be mitigated or offset, or that they can be justified in the name of short-term economic gains. In particular, there is a need to change the overwhelming focus on “doing less harm” that is often central to individual project planning and development processes. It is now widely accepted that the impacts of multiple small projects can combine to create overall ecological harm that tends to be greater than the collective sum of individual impacts. In fact, severe ecological damage rarely has a single cause, so striving to avoid impacts in the first place is key.

We often point out that cumulative impacts and broader sustainability considerations must be taken seriously at the outset of planning with full consideration of how individual projects add to existing and other potential impacts -- including the effects of climate change. As scientists, we try to draw attention to the fact that human economic growth and development is constrained by natural limits and we need to plan accordingly.

The second step is to evaluate development plans over a timeframe of generations – not the life of the project or a government term in office. Adoption of a true multigenerational perspective requires appreciation of the full value of nature in decision making (and our society) and far better recognition of the benefits nature provides to people. Too much of the current focus is placed on short-term raw resource values (trees, minerals, water, fish), instead of on the irreplaceable life support and human health services provided by nature, whether that is filtering and storing water, capturing and storing carbon or providing sustenance for communities.

We know that high-integrity ecosystems, along with robust genetic and species diversity collectively strengthen human wellbeing, yet nature continues to be undervalued and weakened by short-sighted decision making. We are calling for a shift to approaches that properly assess and value natural services before considering what level of industrial disturbance is tolerable in order to protect ecosystem services that are fundamental to our economy, society and well-being.

The third is to think big – and be transformative. “Transformation” is first and foremost an acknowledgment that status quo approaches are failing to address continuing ecological degradation. It also means “doing things differently – not just a little more or less of something we’re already doing.” Ambitious goals for retaining the globally important wild areas that Canada is still fortunate to contain are a good start. Boldly integrating Indigenous-led conservation and worldviews that prioritize reciprocity and gratitude for nature into broader conservation efforts will pay significant dividends, both in terms of environmental outcomes and reconciliation. Similarly, policymakers must recognize the interconnectedness of the climate and biodiversity crises and the increased benefits that can be realized by developing transformative and fully integrated responses. All of this will require a much stronger “whole of government” approach to replace current siloed decision making.

What’s in the policy pipeline

In a 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. 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 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.

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 we 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.

These are the policies we are currently tracking and the outcomes we are seeking for each.

After burn: The new face of fire puts wildlife on the hot seat

After burn: The new face of fire puts wildlife on the hot seat

How Canada’s wildlife is struggling to cope with the human-induced forcings of climate change
Justina Ray, Hilary Cooke

Thinking big to conserve small but important species

Thinking big to conserve small but important species

Through the Key Biodiversity Area (KBA) program, lesser-known and sometimes rare and endemic (restricted to a particular location) species are finally getting their due.
Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne