November 8, 2004

Ottawa lacks leadership and will to fulfill environmental commitments, says SD Commissioner

The federal government is failing to follow through on many of its environmental commitments, even though it has a clear mandate and ample information regarding how to incorporate sustainable development principles and practices into its operations. Slow progress and foot-dragging in a number of areas have led Johanne GÈlinas, Canada's Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development, to conclude that "the reasons are lack of leadership, lack of priority, and lack of will."

Her fourth annual report, presented in the House of Commons October 26, lists three specific areas where the federal government can and needs to make substantial improvements. The government, she says, should:

-- make better use of decision-making and public policy tools to support environmentally sound development;

-- measure the results of federal efforts more consistently, to provide a clear picture of what is being achieved and what remains to be done; and

-- do more to ensure effective accountability for results.

The need for improved management practices resurfaces consistently in audits by the Commissioner's office. This, says the report, is critical to effective delivery by federal departments and agencies on environmental and sustainable development commitments. Given the breadth of management experience within the government and the wealth of advice available, it is not a question of how to improve these practices but a matter of priority and will. Also needed, the Commissioner adds, is strong leadership in order to tap "the enormous potential of the federal role to protect the environment and promote sustainable development."

The report's six chapters examine the government's performance in areas such as international environmental agreements; departmental sustainable development strategies; assessing the environmental impacts of policies, plans and programs; and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)'s approach to development assistance and the environment.

With regard to international environmental agreements, the Commissioner found that Canada does not always know the results of its efforts in this area. Some notable achievements were cited: for example, Canada is meeting its targets under the Montreal Protocol and is effectively tracking emissions of smog-causing pollutants in keeping with its commitment under the Ozone Annex of the Canada-U.S. Agreement on Air Quality.

For the three other agreements reviewed as part of the Commissioner's audit, however, departments do not have adequate information to determine their success in meeting the agreement objectives. These agreements address marine pollution, wetlands conservation and fish stocks: the Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution from Ships (MARPOL); the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially Waterfowl Habitat (RAMSAR); and the United Nations Fish Stocks Agreement (UNFA).

The audit found that progress under these agreements is unclear due to failure to set targets or measure results. Transport Canada, for example, is unable to say whether pollution from ships is increasing, while Environment Canada has not formally defined wetlands conservation or measured any results so it cannot demonstrate that designated wetlands are being adequately conserved. And while Fisheries and Oceans Canada knows the status of four fish stocks (examined as part of the audit), has clear conservation targets for only two of them.

"What isn't measured cannot be managed effectively," GÈlinas noted, adding that this gets back to the need for improved management practices. While setting targets and measuring results is a challenge, the achievements under the Montreal Protocol and the Ozone Annex are proof that it can be done, she added.

CIDA, the report continues, has endorsed international commitments to help ensure access to safe drinking water by people in developing countries. It is also committed to ensuring that its assistance activities are environmentally responsible and that the benefits of CIDA-aided projects continue long after the assistance ends.

Development assistance must be environmentally responsible in order to promote long-term economic growth and reduce poverty in developing countries. However, GÈlinas noted, "CIDA's overall approach to water and the environment is hit or miss. It needs to review its priorities and give clear direction to field personnel."

The Commissioner's audit found that CIDA has made efforts to integrate environmental sustainability into its decision-making, but concluded that environmental assessments of the projects reviewed are not sufficient. Nevertheless, the report commends CIDA for testing ways of ensuring the long-term benefits of its projects. It has developed indicators for tracking long-term results and benefits, but does not yet have a way of measuring these. Consequently, the Agency cannot be certain of the sustainability of project results.

In a section allocated for response to the Commissioner's findings, CIDA has outlined actions it is taking or intends to take to addressing these issues.

The Commissioner's office also examined commitments to making environmental and sustainable development in two key areas-use of the tax system and management of office solid waste. In terms of greening the tax system, it says Finance Canada is dragging its feet. The department made commitments to examine ways of using the tax system to better integrate the economy and the environment, but its analysis has been fragmented and piecemeal. Through incentives, the tax system can have major direct and indirect impacts on the environment and sustainable development. A systematic, risk-based review of opportunities for doing so is an important step toward using the system as a tool for sustainable development, says the report.

GÈlinas expressed disappointment with the government's performance in managing office solid waste, based on a review of six departments and agencies. This, she said "is a basic area of environmental management where I expected strong performance."

While all the offices visited by the Commissioner's auditors were recycling, they could not demonstrate conclusively that they were meeting all of their commitments. Overall, the federal government does not know if it has met its target, stated in 1990, of reducing its waste by 50% by 2000.

This is due to the fact that when the target was established, no government-wide measurement strategy was implemented and responsibilities were not assigned. Central leadership is needed to set government-wide priorities and develop guidance, tools and practices for managing solid waste, adds the report.

Of the departments and agencies examined, one - Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) - received positive mention. The report noted that CRA was able to demonstrate that it had met two of its three waste reduction commitments: developing an environmental management program for solid waste; and diverting an average of 70% of office solid waste in priority-leased facilities. The Commissioner's audit also found that the Agency used an effective sampling method for measuring the waste management results achieved.

Another section of the report points out that new federal policies, plans and programs are not uniformly undergoing strategic environmental assessments (SEAs) as required by a Cabinet directive issued 14 years ago. As a result, said GÈlinas, "Ministers are not getting the information they need before they make decisions that have long-term environmental impacts."

SEAs are the main tool the federal government has for integrating environmental considerations into new policy, plan and program initiatives to be submitted for ministerial approval. The report indicates that most departments are not applying the directive well, mainly because of a lack of senior management commitment and public transparency.

Some departments, however, have made progress in implementing the directive since 1999. The report cites senior management commitment and leadership within Transport Canada, Industry Canada, Natural Resources Canada and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, along with some examples of good practices which could serve as models for other departments to emulate.

Finally, the report again calls attention to the need for prompt action by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to protect salmon. The Commissioner points out that four salmon populations have been designated or listed as endangered since 2001, and more may follow.

"This is the fourth time since 1997 that we have reported on salmon-related issues and we continue to see little progress in managing key risks," GÈlinas stated.

The report lists a number of deficiencies, among them:

-- gaps in information on Pacific salmon stocks and their habitat, and in scientific knowledge about the potential environmental effects of salmon aquaculture;

-- the need for improvements in approvals of aquaculture site applications, including assessment of the cumulative impact of each site's operations and monitoring of operations to prevent destruction of fish habitat; and

-- the need for better federal-provincial co-operation in managing fish habitat, conducting research, approving aquaculture applications and sharing information.

In addition to being responsible, under the Fisheries Act, for protecting salmon and their habitat, DFO is the lead federal agency for aquaculture development. While salmon aquaculture offers substantial economic benefits, it also poses risks to wild salmon stocks and the marine environment, said GÈlinas, adding that "action is needed to manage these risks so that Canada can benefit from sustainable aquaculture development."

The report notes that DFO has accepted the Commissioner's recommendations and has responded with an outline of actions planned or under way to address the recommendations.

The report may be viewed on the Office of the Auditor General of Canada Web site, www.oag-bvg.gc.ca.

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