A new dawn for nature protection?

A flock of seabirds flying above the shoreline

Critters, rejoice. Canada appears to be in an era of renewed attention to wildlife and the lands and waters they need to survive and thrive. 

As we wrote about last year, Canada played a leadership role in the negotiation of a new Global Biodiversity Framework that sets out four nature goals for 2050 and 23 targets that parties – including Canada – must meet by 2030. In December, the federal government published a biodiversity milestone document that proposes a new strategy to help us meet those targets and goals. At the same time, it committed to a new biodiversity accountability law that would help ensure that Canada fulfils its marine and terrestrial nature commitments. 

These are important initiatives and ones we have been calling for. But as with most things, the devil is in the details. Since 1993, Canada has been a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), an international legal instrument ratified by 196 nations that encourages the conservation of biological diversity, its sustainable use and the fair and equitable sharing of its benefits. As required by the CBD, in 1995 Canada published a national biodiversity strategy that set out a framework for protecting biodiversity for present and future generations. 

In 2010, Canada – along with the other parties to the CBD – agreed to the Aichi Targets, a set of five strategic goals and 20 targets for 2020 that were aimed at addressing challenges in CBD implementation. We also have a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy that includes goals like protecting and recovering species and conserving biodiversity, taking action on climate (biodiversity’s crisis twin), and advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. A host of federal laws also work to protect biodiversity, such as the Species at Risk Act, Canada Wildlife Act, Fisheries Act, Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994, Canada National Parks Act, Canada National Marine Conservation Areas Act, Oceans Act, and Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act.

And yet, our biodiversity is in freefall. 

Between 1970 and 2014, mammal populations in Canada dropped 43 percent, amphibian and reptile populations dropped 34 percent, and fish populations declined by 20 percent. Meanwhile, invasive species have risen steadily, with 3,220 identified nationally as of 2020. From 1970-2016, species assessed as “at risk” in Canada saw their populations decline by 59 percent. As of May 2022, 841 species have been assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as extirpated, endangered, threatened, and special concern. 

From iconic species like the west coast’s resident killer whales to lichens that only exist in Canada, each species plays important roles in their ecosystems, and many are also cultural keystone species for Indigenous peoples who have used them for food, medicine and in ceremony since time immemorial. 

But biodiversity is not just species. According to the CBD, biological diversity includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems. Canada is home to a breathtaking variety of landscapes, from old growth temperate rainforests to prairie grasslands to wetlands – habitats that continue to lose ground every year. Increasingly, threats like habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation, pollution, invasive species and climate change push us further away from our goals and push nature further to the brink. 

Why, given the array of international and national laws, policies, targets and strategies, is Canada failing nature? It’s complicated. 

But I can think of four key reasons: 

  1. Settler-colonialism; 
  2. Our biodiversity-related laws and policies are a patchwork quilt; 
  3. It is too easy for governments to cherry-pick targets, be vague about what success looks like and then claim victory; and 
  4. Jurisdictional squabbling between the federal and provincial governments. 

So what will it take to make sure that Canada actually meets its international targets? 

For starters, our governments need to respect Indigenous rights, laws and decision-making authority. Let’s face it, disrespect of Indigenous title and rights – all that hewing of wood and drawing of water without their consent – is at the core of this mess. Any federal biodiversity law and strategy needs to uphold the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples, align with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and support Indigenous conservation priorities. 

Next, we need a comprehensive and cohesive national biodiversity strategy and action plan that outlines exactly what the federal government will do and where the provinces need to pick up the slack. We also need regular, detailed reporting on progress towards meeting our targets, with course-correction measures where we’re not on track. And both the plans and reports need to include credible, detailed indicators for how we measure success so that governments can’t pretend that we’re making more progress than we really are. 

That’s where the biodiversity accountability law comes in. We envision this new federal law working much like the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act (CNZEAA) that we helped get enacted in 2021. Like that law does for climate, a biodiversity accountability law should:

  1. Enshrine our international biodiversity targets and goals in law and require the government to establish new, ambitious post-2030 targets.
  2. Require the federal government to produce regular national biodiversity strategies and action plans and set minimum standards for those strategies and plans. For example, the law should ensure that the strategies and plans detail the federal measures that will be relied on to meet our targets, describe cooperative measures with Indigenous nations and the provinces, explain how the federal government will support Indigenous-led initiatives, and ensure that appropriate indicators will be used to measure progress. It should also require the strategies and plans to be clear about what gaps the provinces are expected to fill. 
  3. Require the federal government to collaborate with Indigenous nations and respect Indigenous rights and authority when making and implementing the national biodiversity strategies and action plans, as well as supporting Indigenous-led initiatives. 
  4. Require regular, detailed public reporting on progress towards meeting our targets, including any measures needed to course correct if we are not on track to meeting any of our targets. 
  5. Establish an independent expert advisory body comprised of Indigenous and non-Indigenous experts and knowledge-holders to advise on targets, plans and reports.

The CNZEAA prescribes these things (with climate-specific modifications) and early indications show that it is working. Before it was enacted, Canada’s 2030 emissions reduction target was 30% below 2005 levels and our climate plan was light on detail about how we were going to get there. After CNZEAA came into force, the government created a stronger target of 40-45% below 2005 levels and produced a much more detailed and credible emissions reductions plan

The first progress report published under that Act shows that while Canada is not on track to meeting our current target, we are on track to surpassing our weaker 30% target. That’s encouraging, and gives us reason to believe that a biodiversity accountability law with similar requirements could help us turn the ship around on nature loss, too. 

I should point out that nature protection cannot be solely the responsibility of the federal government. When it comes to the ocean, the federal government is indeed primarily responsible. But because of how our Constitution divides up powers between the federal and provincial governments, the provinces arguably have the greatest responsibility towards biodiversity on land. 

The provinces have constitutional jurisdiction over most of the land (which of course is actually the territory of the Indigenous peoples who governed and stewarded the land for millennia), they have constitutional authority over shorelines, forests, wildlife and non-renewable resources, and they regulate the majority of activities that harm biodiversity. We cannot hope to halt and reverse nature loss without the provinces on board. 

That said, the federal government has an important role to play, particularly in setting national standards, ensuring coordination across the nation, and encouraging and supporting provincial and Indigenous initiatives. It is, after all, Canada that negotiated and agreed to the Global Biodiversity Framework targets, and it is Canada that must ensure we meet them. 

We expect a biodiversity accountability law to be tabled in Parliament this spring. We are not just hoping it will be strong – we are working hard to make sure it will be.

In the meantime, the federal government is consulting on its biodiversity strategy.  We’ve created this tool to let you send a letter to the government asking for an ambitious and comprehensive strategy that ensures we meet our biodiversity targets. Click here to take action for nature.

Anna Johnston, Staff Lawyer