Finance minister urged to think green

OTTAWA, CANADA - Calls for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to keep the environment top of mind when crafting the stimulus plan, the highlight of the federal budget, have been loud and persistent.

Economists, former prime ministers, opposition parties and activists are all urging billions of dollars to retune the Canadian economy for a low-carbon future with green cars, power, buildings and bonds.

But their hope for a greener country is up against a powerful edict that has gripped the capital. Busy bureaucrats are said to be slipping through the snowy streets of Ottawa muttering about the "shovel-ready" projects competing for upwards of $20 billion of federal funds in the hope the ventures will pull Canada out of its financial funk.

The last three years of Conservative rule have left the impression that this government sees swift environmental action as ruinous for the economy. But with the economy now in trouble, this week's financial injection is seen as an opportunity to catapult Canada toward sustainability.

"The failure to take advantage of this opportunity to shift Canada's economy onto a more sustainable footing... could have significant consequences for decades to come," warns a recent paper, authored by a team of researchers, including a former assistant deputy finance minister and a former deputy environment minister.

The Tories are said to be taking a short view with the stimulus package, smiling on initiatives that can be launched in the next two years.

Hopes for wind turbines, public transport and the scrubbing of polluted sites – some of the top recommendations made by environmentalists in pre-budget consultations – could be sunk because of the red tape, provincial squabbles and other hoops that precede the work.

But dreams of a green future to follow the global recession are not completely dashed.

"My sense... is they are going to do something on the green agenda," said Toronto City Summit Alliance chair David Pecaut, who met Flaherty and Transport and Infrastructure Minister John Baird last month.

"I would expect they will look at it through both lenses of improving the environment and getting a double bang for the buck by stimulus and, in that sense, I suspect tools and things they can get flowing quickly will be important," said Pecaut.

The alliance, representing civic leaders in the GTA, is pushing for a retrofit program for commercial and government-owned buildings. If just 8 per cent of the 18 million square metres of commercial and public space in Toronto was retrofitted, Pecaut said, it would translate into 6,000 new jobs.

Despite pre-emptively releasing this year's $34 billion deficit figure, the Tories are keeping many other details under wraps.

Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said over the weekend there would be a $1 billion fund to retrofit social housing, bringing greater energy efficiency.

But both Environment Minister Jim Prentice and Flaherty's office dodged questions on specific "green" elements to the stimulus plan.

Flaherty "kept his 'green cards' very close to his chest, but I am hopeful we will see some concrete action to both help our economy and our environment," said Marlo Raynolds, executive director of the Pembina Institute. "Now really is the time."


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