Note: This is the 1997 edition of UNEP's Global Environment Outlook. If you are interested in more recent information, please see the 2000 and 2002 editions.
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Environment Outlook-1 - The Web version


Chapter 3: Policy Responses and Directions

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North America

In the early 1970s, both Canada and the United States moved swiftly to respond to public outcries about the environmental issues in North America. In 1970, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created, and in 1971, the Government of Canada established a Federal Department of Environment, now known as Environment Canada. In the years since these major milestones, both countries have established strong records in terms of the application of command-and-control policies as well as the use of economic instruments to achieve environmental results.

Both Canada and the United States are Federal systems and, as such, depend heavily on an effective partnership with other levels of Government (Federal, State, provincial, and municipal). This collaboration includes legislation, research and monitoring, and enforcement measures to combat environmental deterioration and protect the health and safety of their citizens and their environment. Success on many fronts is thus largely due to efforts undertaken at all levels of government. The United States and Canada are widely regarded for the environmental legislation they have designed and enacted and for the establishment of scientifically based environmental and pollutant standards.

In recent years, concern has grown about the capacity for legislative measures alone to deal with the delicate balancing act of environment and economy. Conflicts over natural resources have sometimes exceeded the capacity of established institutions, legislation, and regulations to resolve them. Historically, many environmental regulations were developed and applied to specific sectors for specific substances. This fragmented approach resulted in pollution shifting rather than pollution prevention in certain circumstances. Rather than eliminating the substance, the pollutant would, for instance, move from land to air to water. Further, frustration also grew because the complex network of environmental regulatory processes was delivering too little environmental protection at too high a cost (EPA, 1994a).

As the more obvious problems such as eutrophication of Lake Erie were being resolved, scientists in both countries discovered that command-and-control regulations did not necessarily address other stresses threatening ecological resources and general well-being (for example, the Great Lakes ecosystem). In a recent report, EPA expressed concern that command-and-control approaches to mitigating pollution have sometimes proved to be blunt instruments-overregulating in some areas, undercontrolling in others (EPA, 1996). Evidence has been seen in the failure of regulations to halt the decline of salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest and oyster stocks in the Chesapeake Bay; to control toxic contamination of the beluga whale population in the St. Lawrence River estuary; and to protect migratory bird populations generally. Such problems underscore the substantial limits of present knowledge of the earth's natural systems and the ways in which human activities affect these systems.

Market incentives and participatory processes are being tried as ways of addressing the shortcomings of command-and-control strategies. Increased efforts have been made to use them in environmental protection and natural resources management programmes throughout the region. However, both the U.S. and Canadian Governments recognize that such efforts have their own limitations and are not universally effective in dealing with all environmental threats. For example, measures to deal with human exposure to highly toxic chemicals do not appear to be amenable to this form of policy action. Many environmental problems still require compliance to specific rules and regulations to achieve acceptable standards and ensure protection of public health and the environment (PCSD, 1996).

Against this background, policy in North America seems to be coalescing around three themes: first, strengthen and streamline sectoral environmental policies; second, test the potential for more comprehensive management and creative partnerships with local decision-makers (businesses and communities); third, focus national research and technology where the long-term potential for great scientific discovery compensates for a lack of immediate commercial interest.

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