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Analysis | Brian Mulroney, green before his time | Brian Mulroney, 1939-2024

Natasha Kumar By Natasha Kumar Mar2,2024

The former Canadian prime minister had environmental beliefs that were not fashionable at the time, but whose legacy is still felt today 'today.

Analysis | Brian Mulroney, Green Before His Time | Brian Mulroney, 1939 -2024

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World-renowned oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and Brian Mulroney chat after the Canadian Prime Minister's speech at the Summit of Earth, in Rio.

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In 2006, Corporate Knights, an environmental magazine aimed at the business community, brought together a committee of a dozen personalities, including several environmentalists, to find out which of Canada's prime ministers has been the greenest.

Brian Mulroney topped the list, hands down, for several reasons. Even if he would later reveal some contradictions on the question of fossil fuels.

If there is a reason why the man who was called the little guy from Baie-Comeau was given this title, it is in large part thanks to his beliefs regarding the elimination of acid rain. This question was the great environmental fight of his life, long before he became the leader of the country.

“Acid” rain » are so named because they are the result of the acidification of precipitation which falls on the ground and in watercourses, in the form of rain or snow. Gases such as sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) turn into acids on contact with water.

When they fall on the ground or in waterways, these pollutants have considerable effects on ecosystems. When quantities exceed the absorption capacity of soils and waterways, forests die out – including Quebec's maple groves – and lakes are invaded by blue-green algae.

Brian Mulroney, 1939-2024

Consult the complete file

Brian Mulroney, 1939-2024

Consult the complete file


At the time, a very large part of the acid rain that fell on Canada came from industrial activity in the American Midwest, where factories and Coal-fired power plants send these very harmful gases into the atmosphere.

In June 1984, when he was only the leader of the official opposition in Ottawa, Brian Mulroney went to Washington to meet with American government officials. Against all odds, he managed to obtain a short audience with Ronald Reagan. He decides to take these precious minutes to talk to her about the acid rain issue. He asks the American president to act on this issue and encourages him to negotiate a bilateral treaty to resolve pollution problems.

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Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, left, accompanying American President Ronald Reagan upon his arrival at the Quebec airport, March 17, 1985 . (File photo)

Despite the good relationship that these two charming and charismatic politicians established after Mr. Mulroney came to power, Mr. Reagan wants nothing to do with the problem of acid rain. His administration says there is no conclusive scientific evidence linking polluting emissions from Midwest factories to precipitation in Canada and the northeastern United States.

It was not until the arrival at the presidency of the man who would become a close friend of Mr. Mulroney, George Bush Sr., a Republican with a greener heart than his predecessor, that the issue was resolved.

Nothing was gained otherwise. Mr. Mulroney would have to wait until 1991, three years after his American partner came to power, for the two friends to sign the now famous Canada–United States Air Quality Agreement.

The results? Between 1990 and 2020, sulfur dioxide emissions in Canada and the United States decreased by 78% and 92% respectively. For their part, nitrogen dioxide emissions fell by 65% ​​in Canada and 72% in the United States, in the cross-border area covered by the Agreement.

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Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney addresses delegates on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, Monday, November 20, 2017 in Montreal .

In the spring of 1985, the news went around the world. British scientists reveal in the journal Naturethe presence of a hole in the ozone layer, just above the South Pole. The article has a resounding effect. Overnight, citizens become aware of the threat of such a phenomenon in their daily lives.

The depletion of the ozone layer leads to an increase in ultraviolet rays which are harmful to living beings on Earth, because these rays notably cause skin cancers. For every 1% decrease in the ozone layer, the incidence of this type of disease increases by 4%.

Shortly after publication of this information by scientists, the international community is mobilizing. This involves eliminating the gases which are responsible for the deterioration of the ozone layer, the famous chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

In 1987, barely two years after the discovery of the hole, Brian Mulroney proposed to the United Nations that Montreal host an international conference. The goal: strike a deal to eliminate these gases. This is how the Montreal Protocol was born, on September 16, 1987.

It’s a success across the board. Not only does the agreement allow the ozone layer to gradually recover, but it also helps protect the planet's climate. CFCs are also powerful greenhouse gases (GHGs), and their elimination makes it possible to better combat climate change. It is perhaps the most successful international agreement to date, said former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The Montreal Protocol is a model of its kind, since it was designed to be modified as scientific knowledge evolves. Thus, in 2016, the so-called Kigali amendment made it possible to add hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) to the treaty, gases that are extremely harmful to the climate and used in refrigerators and air conditioners. Experts estimate that if the agreement is respected, it could reduce global warming by 0.5°C by 2100.

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Former NASA climatologist James Hansen giving a lecture at the Capitol in Washington in 2008.

Building on the success of the conference on the ozone layer and supported by the leadership of the Minister of the Environment at the time, Tom McMillan, the Mulroney government seized the opportunity and proposed to the UN to organize in 1988 the first major world conference on climate, an issue that was quietly making its way into political circles.

Chaired by Canadian diplomat Stephen Lewis, the UN conference entitled The Changing Atmosphere was held in Toronto in the summer of 1988, a few days after an event that caused a stir on the planet: on June 23, 1988, NASA climatologist James Hansen testifies before the US Senate. He presents the results of his work on the links between increased GHG emissions and warming temperatures.

The expert creates a shock wave. The data from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Science, which he headed at the time, leaves little room for doubt. The greenhouse effect has been detected and it is already changing our climate, he told American senators bluntly.

TheNew York Times and the Washington Post will be on their front pages.

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James Hansen's presentation made the front page of several newspapers.

James Hansen's testimony will provide great momentum to the Toronto conference.

Brian Mulroney will take advantage of this enthusiasm to demand from the international community an international air law, which would be based on the model of the Montreal Protocol. Alongside him, Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Bruntland proposes the adoption of an international treaty aimed at stabilizing the Earth's atmosphere and preventing further degradation.

The Toronto conference will pave the way for the great Earth Summit in Rio, Brazil, in 1992. This major conference, chaired and masterfully led by Canadian diplomat Maurice Strong, will mark a turning point for saving the climate and of the environment.

Brian Mulroney goes there with his young Minister of the Environment, Jean Charest. But where he plays an important role is in convincing his friend George Bush Sr. to attend. He questions him about the value of this conference without the presence of the United States to encourage him to go there, which Mr. Bush does.

It is in fact at the Rio Summit that the three major international conventions will be born which have today become the backbone of the international protection of the planet: the framework convention on climate change, the convention on biological diversity and the international convention to combat desertification.

It was at the Rio summit that the COP climate process was launched, the aim of which is to enable the negotiation of a global agreement on the issue. COP1 will take place in Berlin in 1995, and the first international climate agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, will be concluded in Japan in 1997.

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Brian Mulroney has also defended the Canadian fossil fuel industry.

If Brian Mulroney was convinced of the need to protect the planet's climate, that would not have stopped him from being a great defender of the Canadian fossil fuel industry. Between 1988 and 1993, his government provided more than $2.5 billion in subsidies for the development of the Hibernia oil platform off the coast of Newfoundland and purchased an 8.5% stake in the project.

In 2016, he supported the construction of the Energy East pipeline, which would connect Alberta and New Brunswick, passing through Quebec and under the St. Laurent, to transport Alberta oil to the east coast of Canada. The project will ultimately be abandoned by the developer.

It would have been interesting to hear Brian Mulroney comment on today's environmental issues.

What would he say about the TransMoutain pipeline, which will be in office very soon, bought at great expense by the government and whose construction costs have exploded?

Would he be against the carbon tax, like the is very affirmatively Pierre Poilievre, the current Conservative leader?

Would he support tougher regulations to reduce GHG emissions from the oil and gas industry?

Would he be in favor of the accelerated development of renewable energies to replace fossil fuels? Increasing funding for public transport? The expansion of nuclear energy? To protect 30% of the country's lands and marine areas?

Unfortunately, we will never know the answers to these questions. But what we can say without being too mistaken, however, is that Brian Mulroney probably had within him this sensitivity with regard to environmental protection which pushed him to action rather than resistance. .

He was one of those who were convinced that in the word conservatism, there was also the word conservation.

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Natasha Kumar

By Natasha Kumar

Natasha Kumar has been a reporter on the news desk since 2018. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times Hub, Natasha Kumar worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my 1-800-268-7116

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