United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Environment Outlook-1 - The Web version

Chapter 3: Policy Responses and Directions

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North America

Regional Initiatives

Because Canada and the United States share one of the most extensive common borders in the world, complex transboundary conservation and pollution issues are among the key concerns for the region. Bilateral ministerial-level meetings and frequent consultations at the working level are regularly held to discuss issues of common concern. Institutional arrangements for the Great Lakes ecosystem and joint action on acid rain have demonstrated the effectiveness for concerted international co-operative action. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its accompanying side-agreement on Environmental Co-operation (NAAEC) provide an opportunity to strengthen the relationships between trade and environmental policy development and to extend co-operative efforts for mutual economic as well as environmental benefit. Mexico, which is also a signatory to NAFTA and the NAAEC, helps to define the environmental agenda for the region. Regionalization, in turn, promotes awareness of national possibilities as well as respective responsibilities for global concerns, such as climate change.

The long history of co-operation on environmental issues is exemplified by the multiplicity of programmes under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreements (GLWQA). The Great Lakes-Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario-are an important part of the physical and cultural heritage of North America and one of the most modified and studied ecosystems in the world. Spanning more than 1,200 kilometres, they are the largest system of fresh surface water on earth, containing roughly 18 per cent of the world's water supply; the basin is home to more than one tenth of the population of the United States and one quarter of the population of Canada.

In the 1950s, concerns arose in both countries about increasing eutrophication, the impact of overfishing and of the parasitic exotic sea lamprey on fish stocks and aquatic ecosystems, and the bioaccumulation of persistent toxic chemicals in fish-eating species. Governmental responses were formalized in a number of agreements and conventions between Canada and the United States as early as the 1955 Convention on the Great Lakes Fisheries and the subsequent GLWQA of 1972 and 1978.

The GLWQA is monitored by the International Joint Commission, an independent international organization established in 1909 to help prevent and resolve disputes between the two countries with respect to waters that cross or lie on the boundary. Revisions to the Water Quality Agreements have been carried out, taking into consideration the successes as well as current concerns, <|>such as control of nutrients and eutrophication, return of certain species, plateauing of pollutant decline despite continued reduction efforts, non-point sources of pollution, and atmospheric inputs. Similar initiatives dealing with the Gulf of Maine on the East Coast and Puget Sound/Georgia Basin on the West Coast illustrate regional integrated coastal zone management in action.

In 1991, a joint Air Quality Agreement was signed to confront the region's acid rain problem. This umbrella agreement currently contains commitments for reductions in SO2 and NOx emissions (CEPA, 1996). Its significance and the necessity of a transboundary approach are underlined by the fact that half the acid rain in Canada originates in the United States (Marchi, 1996).

On the international level, both countries are addressing the climate change issue through action plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Emissions for the United States have levelled off in recent years. Furthermore, at the Second Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Geneva, July 1996), the United States announced its support for a binding international agreement requiring the world's industrial nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and setting a "realistic, verifiable and binding medium-term target" (Wirth, 1996). Canada also called for accelerated negotiations for a legal instrument by the end of 1997 "that would encompass significant overall reductions" (EC, 1996c).

Co-operation on many fronts highlights the commitment of the people and Governments of Canada and the United States to prevent further environmental degradation within each country, in the region as a whole, and internationally. Environmental protection and conservation have long been a tradition-stemming back to the turn of the century with bilateral agreements on the Great Lakes and other shared ecosystems. Recently, this collaboration has been strengthened through both Governments' commitment to meet environmental responsibilities under NAFTA. Widespread support from the public, non-governmental organizations, and many forward-looking industries has been crucial in these endeavours. The use of regional approaches by both Governments is recognition that environmental problems are not unique to either country. And neither are the solutions.

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