Scientists 4 CEPA, a group made up of more than 500 Canadian scientists, recently signed a petition letter calling for the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) to be strengthened. The letter, addressed to the Prime Minister, calls for 11 specific changes drawn from a parliamentary review of CEPA from 2017.

Among the 11 CEPA policy changes recommended in the letter are requiring mandatory labeling of toxic substances, increasing protections for vulnerable populations such as low-income and Indigenous communities, creating legally binding national air quality standards, and enshrining the right to a healthy environment.

In light of these recommendations, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should make strengthening CEPA a priority. Not only are these suggestions incredibly important and entirely necessary for protecting the health of Canadians, they are also politically prudent.

Canada is not as good as we would like to think we are at protecting and preserving our environment, and our collective failure to do so is having an adverse effect on our health. A 2017 UNICEF study on the well-being of children in rich countries ranked Canada 19th for air quality and 25th overall.

Canada’s growing shortcomings were also noted by the annual report of the World Energy Council, which ranks countries according to energy security, equity, and sustainability. While the 2014 report had Canada ranked sixth overall, by 2017, Canada had plummeted to 21st. The reason for this distressing fall is the country’s poor rankings on the sustainability side: 56th in 2014, 100th in 2017. When the health of our citizens, our environment, and our planet is at stake, results like these are not good enough.

Recommitting to environmental protection is also economically prudent. According to an International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) report called “Costs of Pollution in Canada,” the consequences of air pollution alone on Canadians’ health cost Canadians $36 billion in 2015 —that’s about $1,000 per person. The same report notes that “pollution threatens not only Canadians’ current well-being but also the prospects for sustaining that well-being into the future.”

Adopting the changes that Scientists 4 CEPA suggest would be a clear affirmation that the government takes these shortcomings seriously and is committed to reversing this troubling trend. The UNICEF and IISD reports both emphasize the impact of poor air quality on Canadians, and creating enforceable national air quality standards is an important step. The petition also advocates for periodical chemical risk assessments, explicitly requiring alternatives to toxic substances when feasible, and increasing the budget for enforcement. Strengthening CEPA’s regulatory power would help curb the effects of pollution on Canadians’ health and on our environment.

It should be noted that implementing such changes would also be politically savvy. In the eyes of many, the Prime Minister’s environmental record has not lived up to the lofty goals that were promised during his 2015 campaign — which should be of increasing concern to the Liberals, given that the next federal election is fast approaching in the fall of 2019.

Back in 2015, Trudeau was adamant that a Liberal government would bring “real change” on environmental issues. He promised “a price on carbon pollution” and to “invest in clean technologies.” He was adulatory about Canadians’ view of our environment, saying that “we appreciate its beauty, understand its dangers, and know its value.”

Admittedly, Trudeau’s government has had some notable environmental successes. Pushing the Paris Climate Accord to agree to more restrictive goals than expected was a major accomplishment, as was the decision to hold the provinces to a national carbon tax. However, his platform on the environment has not quite lived up to the hype. Critics have raised concerns that the Prime Minister’s continued commitment to fossil fuels, which has included green-lighting the Trans Mountain Pipeline and Enbridge’s Line 3, reduces his Paris obligations to plain rhetoric.

Adopting the proposed changes to CEPA would serve the Trudeau government, and Canadians, in other ways. Not long ago, the Prime Minister gave an aspirational speech to the House of Commons, announcing a new framework for the “recognition and implementation of Indigenous rights.” Although the two issues may seem initially unrelated, strengthening CEPA could show that the broad rhetoric on display in the House of Commons was more than just words.

The connection between environmental protection and Indigenous rights — rooted in claims of sovereignty and self-governance as well as spiritual connections to land — is highlighted by the parliamentary review of CEPA that triggered this petition. The review urges that the act be amended to recognize “the importance of considering vulnerable populations in risk assessments” and to “recognize the principles put forward in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” It also recommends that a requirement be set out for consultation with Indigenous peoples before provisions are enacted.

The recognition of the right to a healthy environment could provide vulnerable groups, including Indigenous peoples, with a legal avenue to ensure that they are provided with clean air and drinking water. This is especially salient since Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by environmental crises, including lack of access to clean drinking water; the number of boil-water advisories in Indigenous communities reached 91 in January.

Given these ramifications, it is important to treat environmental protection as a long-term investment. Miriam Diamond, a leader of Scientists 4 CEPA and U of T professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, emphasizes the importance of idealism in doing so. “We’re addressing nuts and bolts issues, but we need the vision,” she says. “We need to be idealistic; we need to dream and think how we’ve got to to a better place. And that better place has to be a sustainable future.”

Adopting the recommendations to CEPA proposed by Scientists 4 CEPA represents a crucial step toward equity and sustainability — and U of T students and faculty alike are in a unique position to make an impact on this issue. Students can write to their professors asking them to put their names behind the petition, and students themselves can also make classroom announcements before lecture and tutorial. They can also circulate the petition in graduate and faculty departments. Campus environmental clubs could help make the issue more visible by getting their members involved as well.

One thing is certain: given the current state of our planet and of our health, the status quo is not going to cut it. As Diamond puts it, “We can’t keep doing what we’re doing without impact.”

Zach Rosen is a second-year student at Trinity College studying History and Philosophy. He is The Varsity’s Current Affairs Columnist.