Muddy Boots is our internal blog where our staff members share experiences getting their boots muddy with on-the-ground conservation research! You can find our contributions to external blogs and Op Eds here.
In this 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, in collaboration with First Nations, 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.
Read: Tracking policy developments is just as important as tracking wildlife
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 governments 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.
The policies and initiatives in this section represents opportunities to both improve our understanding of the real long-term impacts of development decisions and trends (increased demand for minerals or ship traffic) and ones that pose a potential threat of weakening or entrenching already inadequate mechanisms for ensuring we don’t further harm vital natural systems.
What it’s about:
In October, 2023, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) issued an opinion on the Impact Assessment Act (2019) (IAA), finding it to be unconstitutional in part because it infringed on areas of law that are under provincial control. The federal government has responded by saying it will address the issues highlighted by the SCC through amendments to the legislation in early 2024.
What we are looking for:
What it’s about:
The release of the Canadian Critical Minerals Strategy in late 2022 signaled Canada’s interest in positioning itself as a “global leader” in the production of critical minerals and the development of associated supply chains (e.g., smelting, manufacturing) to support the green energy transition. In 2024, we expect to see the introduction of policies that will enable implementation of the many commitments (including budgetary) included in the Strategy, including (but not limited to) updating the Critical Minerals list. We are also tracking emerging provincial and territorial critical minerals strategies, as well as efforts to reform century-old mining legislation in Yukon and changes to mining regulations in Ontario under its similarly antiquated legislation.
What we are looking for:
What it’s about:
With noise increasingly recognized as a key stressor for marine life, the federal government committed several years ago to develop an Ocean Noise Strategy. According to news reports, Fisheries and Oceans Canada says the long-delayed strategy will be published “before the end of the 2023-2024 fiscal year with an associated period of public engagement to immediately follow”.
Canada is one of the world’s leading exporters of wood products, while insisting it is dedicated to the principles of sustainable forest management. Concerns about the health of Canadian forest ecosystems and their ability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate are growing, however. Fortunately, there are important opportunities on the horizon to enhance some provincial/territorial forest management policies (e.g., in Ontario and Yukon) that are up for review. At the same time, in response to a new EU regulation aimed at restricting the sale of products contributing to deforestation and degradation, Natural Resources Canada is coordinating the development of a domestic definition of “forest degradation,” promising to deliver a “robust, science-based, and transparent reporting framework”.
When only short-term economic interests are considered in decision making, the process ignores the tremendous costs of further compromising natural systems and climate stability. These policies represent opportunities to take a more holistic and informed approach that properly integrates an understanding of what is at stake in wild areas and the importance of reversing biodiversity loss.
In 2020, the federal government committed to conduct a regional assessment for the Ring of Fire area in the far north of Ontario. This year, we expect to see the Terms of Reference for this important assessment, which will consider the issues at stake in an area with significant mineral potential but also massive peatlands and important headwaters. The government has committed to “co-develop and co-lead” the development of the Terms of Reference with Indigenous leadership.
This initiative also dovetails with a process to develop an overarching policy framework for all regional assessments conducted under section 92 of the IAA, which is nearing completion and should be released in 2024.
What we are looking for:
Canada is starting its final push to achieve its 2030 GHG emissions reduction target of reducing GHG emissions to 40% below 2005 levels and get on track for net-zero by 2050. In the past two years, starting with the release of its Emissions Reduction Plan in March 2022, the federal government has taken significant steps to enable nature-based climate solutions. Funding and resources are being provided for natural solutions to climate change, such as the protection of forests and wetlands. At the same time, the federal government is advancing various initiatives to encourage an energy transition in support of climate objectives. For example, it is expected to finalize the oil and gas sector emissions cap by mid-2024.
For us, 2024 will be the year of assessing the performance of Canada’s recently implemented nature-based policies for climate and keeping an eye on further climate-relevant policies coming down the pipe.
As the 2023 Report on Species at Risk by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (CESD) pointed out, the federal government is not using its full authority to protect species at risk and their habitats under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). The commissioner called on Environment and Climate Change Canada to complete and implement policies on use of the safety net and emergency order tools found in SARA. These legislative powers can be used when provinces and territories fail to protect species at risk and their habitat. Unfortunately, these powers have rarely been used to benefit imperiled species.
We anticipate that efforts will accelerate in 2024 to complete several key SARA policies, including “Assessing Imminent Threats” and “Critical Habitat Protection” on non-federal lands.
To tackle something as big as the combined biodiversity-climate crisis, we require much more than tweaking business-as-usual approaches. It is well past time to adopt much more ambitious and farsighted approaches to ensuring we act now to reverse climate and ecosystem damage and put in place measures that create healthier future directions for nature and people.
Thanks to the adoption of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (KMGBF) in Montreal last December, Canada is obliged to complete a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) by COP16 in late 2024. In late 2023, the federal government released what it calls a “Milestone Document” laying out how it intends to frame the 2030 Strategy in line with all four goals and 23 targets of the KMGBF. Following consultation (most importantly with provincial/territorial governments and Indigenous organizations) the finalized 2030 Strategy will serve as its NBSAP.
While the full KMGBF is undeniably complex and the task of implementing it effectively is challenging to contemplate, the requirement to develop the NBSAP presents an opportunity for the federal government to display the leadership that is so necessary for addressing the biodiversity crisis in coordination with action on climate.
Thanks to land claim settlement agreements under the Yukon Umbrella Final Agreement, there are a number of land use planning initiatives underway in Yukon that are being led by self-governing First Nations. This presents an important opportunity to significantly increase areas protected from industrial disturbance in the territory.
The Dawson regional plan encompasses 39,854 square km -- a large and diverse area that covers 10% of the Yukon territory. A land-use plan for the region has been under development for several years and a final plan is expected within the next year. WCS Canada staff are working intensively with the Tr’ondëk Hwëchìn (TH) First Nation Government in a partnership to improve conservation outcomes in the Recommended Plan.
The First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun (FNNND) is also preparing for regional land use planning in their Northern Tutchone traditional territory, which is the next biggest planning region in the Yukon. Our staff are providing technical and scientific support to FNNND to promote and secure new protected areas as well as help finalize the Beaver River sub-regional plan.
Meanwhile, the Kaska Nations of Yukon and northern BC have steadfastly declined to cede rights and title to their combined Traditional Territories and instead have proposed Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas covering over ~100,000 square kilometers of ecologically diverse and mostly intact landscapes. WCS Canada staff provided technical support and scientific expertise to the development of the IPCA proposals of Ross River Dena Council and the BC Kaska.
British Columbia has the greatest diversity of species at risk and globally threatened ecosystems and species in Canada. However, it also lacks modernized legislation to protect these natural riches. Recently, the provincial government has begun to address this disconnect with a number of important policy initiatives, including the “collaborative development” with rights holders and stakeholders of a draft Biodiversity and Ecosystem Health Framework (BEHF) in response to Recommendation 2 of the 2020 Old Growth Strategic Review.
Indeed, the mandate letter for the Minister of Water, Land and Resource Stewardship issued in late 2022 includes explicit direction to “protect wildlife and species at risk…and….protect and enhance B.C.’s biodiversity” and implementation of the BEHF that "commits to the conservation and management of ecosystem health and biodiversity as an overarching priority…[to be formalized]…...through legislation and other enabling tools”. Moving in this direction will require, among other things, reform of existing provincial legislation (e.g., Wildlife Act and Forest & Range Practices Act), which we expect to start seeing progress on this in 2024.
Environmental concerns have received little attention in Manitoba in recent years, with key biodiversity and climate laws and regulations remaining unimplemented or unimagined. With a new government elected in late 2023, there is a fresh mandate for the new environment minister to take action. Priorities of particular relevance to WCS Canada include work with Indigenous communities to achieve the goal of protecting 30% of Manitoba’s diverse landscapes by 2030 and creating a “roadmap to meet net-zero targets by 2050”.
Photo credits: Banner | Lila Tauzer © WCS Canada