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The contrast between the environmental policies of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, led by the late Brian Mulroney, and the Conservative Party of Canada, led by Pierre Poilievre, currently Leader of the Opposition, was brought into sharp focus during the recent period of tributes and reminiscence following Brian Mulroney’s passing.

Indeed many of the tributes that recalled Mulroney’s nomination as Canada’s Greenest Prime Minister, sounded more like tributes to a Liberal PM than to a Conservative PM except that no Liberal PM has been found as deserving of praise as Mulroney for environmental performance.

The most ambitious Mulroney policy, rather a 174-page book of environmental policies, was entitled “Canada’s Green Plan for a healthy environment.” The Green Plan included 23 sections covering a range of topics as diverse as smog, sustainable fisheries, and preserving the integrity of our northland. Some of these sections promised specific but unquantified achievements. For example, the section on persistent toxic substances promised regulating the discharge of individual chemicals where toxicological evidence already exists, accelerating toxicological research, and promoting full lifecycle management of chemicals to reduce discharges beyond regulated amounts. Other sections promised consultations, meetings and international agreements but no concrete targets.

Climate change, known by its earlier moniker of global warming, gets just one of the sections in the Green Plan. Other topics, of which there are more than one hundred, cover just about everything that one might have considered to be an environmental issue either in 1990 or today. However, as one might deduce from 174 pages divided by more than one hundred issues, the depth of coverage is shallow, with most emphasis having been put on studies, consultations, and the need to develop policies.

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The Green Plan was published in the early days of sustainable development plans so the Plan should perhaps not be faulted too much for what it is not. However businesses, governmental and non-governmental organizations and policy and program developers might take some useful lessons from where the Plan did not succeed.

First, one should not bite off more than one can reasonably chew. By my count fewer than a dozen of the more concrete proposals in the Green Plan have been implemented to any significant degree. Other observers might have a different count but at my most generous I could find fewer than about twenty five that have actually achieved concrete results. The Green Plan makes very little attempt to prioritize its recommendations and it would have been impossible in the early nineties to have government deliver on all one 100+ recommendations without a massive increase in policy and program staffing in the half dozen ministries most concerned with green policies.

Second, a proposed policy is only as good as its proposed implementation. The Green Plan contains very little in the way of describing implementation plans. Just as companies today are often inclined to announce green goals without having more than a very foggy idea of how they might achieve them so the Green Plan contains lots of unquantified objectives with little or no description of how to reach them.

Third, the Green Plan contains few examples of how to achieve its objectives. It sometimes mentions regulations and economic instruments such as cap and trade but provides little explanation of how to implement these tools in the face of opposition from those who believe that their business will be adversely affected. In many places the Green Plan reads more like a consultation document than a firm policy proposal though it is clearly intended as the latter. In the introduction, Mulroney stated: “The Green Plan expresses the Government’s commitment to work with Canadians to manage our resources prudently and to encourage sensitive environmental decision-making.”

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Fourth, green planning is a long, some would say perpetual, process that should be capable of continuing beyond the term of one Prime Minister or one CEO. Far too often in the business community an environmental commitment from one CEO is carefully shuffled to the back of the bookshelf by a successor. Mulroney did nothing to cement the Green Plan into legislation and the Green Plan was quickly forgotten after Jean Chretien succeeded Mulroney in 1993. (Kim Campbell succeeded Mulroney in June 1993 and might have become a strong advocate for the Green Plan had she not been removed from office as a result of the Fall 1993 election.)

Maybe one day a new contest will bring attention to a more robust Green Plan introduced by a more committed Prime Minister. One can only hope. In the meantime, let us continue to celebrate the Mulroney Green Plan in the hope that it will inspire a future Prime Minister and Government to move forward on a path that no previous Prime Minister except Brian Mulroney has dared to follow.

For related information, other environmental remembrances of Brian Mulroney’s Green Plan, with slightly different perspectives, can be found at here and here. Canada’s Green Plan can be found in the archives here. Environment Journal’s tribute to Canada’s Greenest PM can be found here.

Colin Isaacs is a chemist with practical experience in administration, municipal council, the Ontario Legislature, a major environmental group, and, for the past three decades, as an adviser to business and government. He is one of the pioneers in promoting the concept of sustainable development for business in Canada and has written extensively on the topic in the popular press and for environment and business platforms.

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