Two weeks ago, Environment Ministers from the world's seven most industrialized economies met in Hamilton, Ontario in preparation for the full scale meeting of their leaders in Halifax next month. The pre- meeting press releases suggested that the Ministers would be grappling with far-reaching environmental themes.
Despite efforts by Canadian Minister Sheila Copps to raise the event's profile, and the Ministers' joint pronouncements that the world's economic powerhouses have the ability, and responsibility, to lead the campaign to deter the massive threat to our environment, the small print in the concluding press release told the tale. These Ministers either do not have the mandate or willpower to forge the alliance, and advance the tough actions for a successful effort.
One of the only announcements of substance from Hamilton was a commitment (no specifics forthcoming) for national governments to "green" their governments, and to work towards mechanisms to measure and report on their progress.
What is meant by greening G-7 governments? It is to assert pollution precaution and environmental stewardship by measures such as insisting on recycled content in products, fuel efficient vehicles and environmentally responsible contracts. Even further, governments can decide to green their policies and actions by integrating and assessing environmental considerations, linking environment and economics, implementing ecological tax reform, and removing disincentives to sound environmental practices. The extent to which the Hamilton commitment extends to these opportunities is unclear. The fact that the news release mentions only the greening of operations and not policy suggests that the Hamilton delegates did not have a commitment to the environment.
A close look at the environmental projects for the upcoming Halifax Summit reveals a stronger commitment. For many months approximately two (2) dozen Nova Scotia citizens have been meeting and working towards the objective of maximum environmental benefit and minimal environmental impact from the Summit. The group is termed the Civic Environment Committee (CEC) for the Halifax Summit. It is composed of a group of representatives from environmental groups, business, concerned individuals and interested governmental departments. In early discussions last fall it set an ambitious agenda - to green the Halifax Summit so that it would have minimal environmental impact on Nova Scotia; to capitalize on the event to advance local and provincial progress towards environmental stewardship; to effect the summit organizational process and conduct; and to educate, affect and influence Summit participants and media in terms of their actions, during and after the event.
G-7 Summits are accustomed to spending millions of dollars on security, hospitality, communications, beautification and transportation. The Halifax Summit had the hardest time deciding to spend a relatively few thousand dollars on a variety of environmental changes. Nonetheless, slowly but surely, things have moved - much more than CEC members or Summit organizers may have envisioned in their original expectations.
This Summit may transform the way these events are coordinated. Rigorous purchasing guidelines, in accord with Canada's Environmental choice product guidelines, have been widely implemented where possible. The major venues will undertake the most aggressive waste minimization and diversion effort in Nova Scotian event history - an 85% diversion plan featuring extensive composting. The Summit will see substantial efforts in mass transit, bicycle access and de-emphasis on auto transport. Media materials and communications will stress green education and paper reduction. A major reusable mug program will put a big dent on disposable containers, which themselves will be compostible when necessary at all. Youth environmental coaches will be everywhere. The list of environmental changes is still expanding.
Perhaps most importantly, a recent decision to fund a post Summit environmental audit of all operations and planning, supervised by CEC committee members, should go a long way to ensuring that managers and bureaucrats take these efforts seriously.
The final result cannot yet be forecast. At best, the Summit could establish the "Halifax model" as a new way of organizing and implementing Summits with environmental responsibility in a prominent place. Equally important, the Summit could and should demonstrate to Nova Scotia's governments and business community that substantial improvements towards sustainability can be achieved and make sense. Processes and systems introduced in June can be maintained and expanded. Federal government departments and agencies can learn that Canada's 'green' government objectives can be successfully implemented, even for such a massive undertaking. Green procurement and green policies can and must be taken seriously.
With a bit of luck the message will penetrate the heady world of Summit participants. Perhaps media and delegates will learn, see, experience, or realize something that will affect their view of what they can and should do on many levels. In the wildest CEC fantasy, Bill Clinton will turn to Jean Chr#tien and ask about the funny off-white paper, hear of the positive feedback from the environmental changes here, or find his staff exploring the implications of this approach to integrating environment with other agendas. In this fantasy, the ripple will affect the discussions on our global future. In this fantasy, the Halifax Summit will mark a shift from global posturing to global and national action.
A fantasy? Probably so. But less so than Environment Ministers claiming that their posturing about environmental leadership will translate into G-7 action in June. We'll see and compare fantasies later.