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1997 March Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Main Points

1. This is my first report to Parliament, and the first report by a Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. It provides me with the opportunity to set out my mandate, my priorities and my work program. The report also presents my personal perspective on some of the issues that are of crucial importance to my role.

2. The post of Commissioner was established because of concern about the federal government's performance in protecting the environment and fostering sustainable development. Greater accountability is an important force for enhancing government performance. My role is to provide objective, independent analysis and recommendations to members of Parliament to help them examine the federal government's actions and hold it to account.

3. My mandate includes both environmental and sustainable development issues. A healthy environment is critical for a prosperous economy and for our broader social well-being. Sustainable development recognizes the importance we attach to caring for people and the environment, both at the same time.

4. Previous work by the Office of the Auditor General has identified key weaknesses in the federal government's management of sustainable development issues: the gap between commitments and concrete action; a lack of co-ordination among departments and across jurisdictions; and inadequate review of performance and provision of information to Parliament. We will continue to focus attention on these management weaknesses and the success and failure of departments in dealing with them.

5. Our work program for the next two years has four main components: the review of sustainable development strategies now being prepared by 24 federal departments and agencies; auditing of key environmental and sustainable development issues like environmental assessment, climate change and sustainable fisheries; special studies of issues like Canada's international commitments and public and private sector performance; and monitoring public petitions on environmental and sustainable development issues.

6. While there are no quick fixes, I am confident that government can be a positive force in fostering sustainable development. Even in this era of cost cutting and deficit reduction, governments must be there to provide strong leadership and a clear vision. They must also show that they are willing to change their own behaviour, and to exercise their responsibilities as stewards of our natural environment.

7. The challenge can be met. What we need is the will, the discipline and the management commitment to translate talk into action.

Commissioner's Perspective

My first report
8. This is my first report to the House of Commons, and the first report by a Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. In preparing this report, I have consulted with parliamentarians and stakeholders on their expectations. The report describes my mandate, outlines my priorities and presents my work program for the coming years. It sets the stage for future reports on the federal government's efforts to protect the environment and foster sustainable development.

Performance and accountability
9. By enacting the amendments to the Auditor General Act that created my position (see Appendix A ), parliamentarians sent a strong message to Canadians. They indicated that they shared Canadians' concern about the quality of our environment and our desire for sustainable development. They formally committed themselves to encouraging stronger performance by the federal government in both areas.

10. My job is to assist parliamentarians in that task. I will provide objective, independent analysis and recommendations to members of Parliament to help them examine the federal government's performance and hold it to account for that performance. I also plan to work directly with federal departments and agencies to promote accountability and best practices in the management of environmental and sustainable development issues.

Environment and sustainable development
11. My position is Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. My perspective on both of these issues is therefore fundamental to my approach to the job, and to the objectives and priorities that I have established to guide my work.

12. I have been working on environmental and sustainable development issues for most of my career. Based on that experience - and my professional training - I believe strongly that government has an essential role to play in protecting the environment and fostering sustainable development.

13. To achieve the results Canadians are expecting, governments must provide strong leadership and a clear vision. And if we expect to change behaviour across society, the federal government must lead by example and demonstrate that it is fostering a culture of environmental protection and sustainable development within its own departments and agencies.

14. Furthermore, I believe that a healthy environment is critical for a prosperous economy and for our broader social well-being. The environment that we share provides many of the resources that we consume and that we use to produce goods and services. And without clean air and water, or the protection provided by the earth's atmosphere, there would be no life.

15. I also believe that environmental protection is best pursued within a framework of sustainable development. The World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs." This definition was included in the amendments to the Auditor General Act that created the position of Commissioner, and serves as an important starting point for my work.

16. Sustainable development makes sense to me, and I think to most Canadians. Sustainable development recognizes the importance we attach to a healthy environment, to a prosperous economy and to issues of equity and fairness. It stresses the need to integrate these factors in our decision making, so that progress can be made on all of them. The goal is to take care of people and the environment that supports them, both at the same time.

17. The pursuit of sustainable development presents us with unique challenges. Can we integrate social, economic and environmental concerns? Can we provide for economic growth and social development without seriously impairing the natural environment on which we all depend? I think we can.

18. While the goal is to achieve a reasonable balance among the many elements of sustainable development that are important to Canadians, my immediate work plan pays particular attention to the environment. Economic and social priorities have traditionally received more explicit recognition in the mandates of departments. Part of my job is to redress this imbalance by bringing the environment into the equation more systematically.

19. It has been 25 years since the key underpinnings of sustainable development were first enunciated at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. It has been 10 years since the release of the landmark document Our Common Future by the Brundtland Commission. And it has been five years since representatives of 178 nations gathered at Rio de Janeiro to chart a path for global sustainable development. It is time to take sustainable development seriously; to get on with the job and put the concept into practice.

20. There are few quick solutions to environmental problems, and achieving sustainable development will require persistence, sustained and focussed effort and patience. We are on a long journey, one that demands systemic change in order to make a real difference for present and future generations.

We all have a role to play
21. In performing my duties, I will be seeking advice from experts in the field of environmental and sustainable development policy and practice. A 14-member advisory committee has been struck to help me establish priorities and a work program (see Appendix D ).

22. Individual Canadians also have an important role to play. Departments will be consulting with clients and stakeholders during the preparation of their strategies. And the petition process provides a formal vehicle for Canadians to comment on environmental issues that are the responsibility of federal departments, and to obtain a response.

23. I am confident that government can be a positive force in fostering sustainable development. Even in this era of cost cutting and deficit reduction, the federal government can provide strong leadership, a clear vision and a commitment to improving its own performance.

24. The challenge can be met. What we need is the will, the discipline and the management commitment to translate talk into action.

A Long-standing and Growing Concern

The international context
25. This report comes on the anniversary of three key events that have defined the domestic and international agendas for the environment and sustainable development (see Exhibit 1 ).

  • The 25th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment . The "Stockholm Conference" recognized the interdependence of people and the environment, and the ties between economic and social development and environmental protection.
  • The 10th anniversary of the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development . Our Common Future presented a global vision for sustainable development, linking social well-being to a prosperous economy and a healthy environment.
  • The fifth anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development . The "Rio Conference" focussed on the globalization of environmental issues and the need for international co-operation to ensure sustainable development.
26. Countries around the world are taking stock of progress made in protecting the environment and fostering sustainable development. What have we accomplished? What have we learned? What do we do next? Canada has made progress, but there is still a lot to do.

Canada's strengths
27. Canada brings a broad range of assets to the pursuit of sustainable development. Some of these are natural assets. For example, Canada extends over almost 10 million square kilometres, and borders on three oceans. We are custodians of about nine percent of the world's renewable fresh water supply, 10 percent of its forests, and significant reserves of oil, gas, coal and other minerals.

28. But perhaps even more important is the talent, energy and resourcefulness of Canadians. Much of Canada's economic development and well-being has come from the application of ever more sophisticated technology, by an increasingly educated work force, to our rich base of renewable and non-renewable resources. Canada has achieved a level of human development that is the envy of much of the world.

A number of achievements
29. Over the last quarter-century, Canada has been a leader in international co-operation on environmental issues. For example, Canada played a major role in establishing the Montreal Protocol, an international regime to protect the earth's ozone layer. Another example is the Canada-United States Air Quality Accord on acid rain and other transboundary air pollution issues.

30. The recent State of Canada's Environment - 1996 documents progress we have made in a number of areas toward a healthier environment. For example, compared with most other countries, Canada enjoys water of a relatively high quality. Key industries have significantly reduced their pollution levels. Air quality has improved and progress has been made in protecting natural areas and reducing waste.

Significant challenges remain
31. Significant challenges remain, however, including the management of new toxic chemicals, urban smog and groundwater contamination. Compared with other countries, per capita we are a large consumer of energy and other natural resources and a large generator of pollution and waste. Recent projections prepared for federal-provincial energy and environment ministers suggest that Canada will fall far short of meeting its target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

32. In short, we must work hard to reduce the burden of pollution, manage our natural resources, integrate environmental, social and economic decision making and meet our international commitments.

Canadians expect more to be done
33. Canadians are worried about the quality of the environment, and its impact on their health and the health and opportunities of their children. Recent public opinion research by Synergistics Consulting Limited and Environics Research Group Ltd., in their Environmental Monitor surveys, suggests that:

  • Canadians remain deeply concerned about the quality of the environment. A majority of Canadians are "very concerned" about key issues such as toxic chemicals and air and water quality. This concern has remained constant over the past decade.
  • There is still much to do. Canadians recognize that some progress has been made in the past 10 years in reducing pollution to safe levels, but that we still have a long way to go. On average, Canadians feel that we are only one third of the way toward achieving the goal of a "safe" environment.
  • Canadians are questioning the government's capacity to make a difference. A slim majority of Canadians agree that the federal government seems no longer capable of playing a major role in achieving a sustainable environment in Canada over the longer term.
34. As the Auditor General indicated in his November 1996 Report, a number of analysts have concluded that one of the most significant changes in recent years has been a loss of public confidence in governments. The failure of governments to deliver in key areas of importance to Canadians is cited by those analysts as a major cause of this loss of confidence. The environment is one of those key areas.

The federal government's role
35. The federal government has an important role to play in protecting the environment and fostering sustainable development. Its influence is felt in three ways:

  • As an employer, landlord and purchaser , the federal government is the largest single enterprise in Canada. How it manages its day-to-day operations has significant implications for the environment and for sustainable development.
  • As a rule-maker and enforcer , the federal government's policies have an important influence on decisions made by individual producers and consumers. In particular, the federal government shares responsibility for establishing the framework of laws and regulations that affect our use of the environment.
  • As a service and program provider , the federal government contributes to our overall economic and social well-being. For example, it provides much of the scientific expertise needed to protect the environment and foster sustainable development. And it delivers key services like weather forecasts and food inspection.
The federal government's performance
36. Although progress has been made in a number of areas, it has not been uniform. Many environmental and sustainable development issues are, by their very nature, difficult to manage. They present governments with significant challenges. They are often scientifically complex, involve long time frames and do not fit neatly within a single department's or government's mandate or jurisdiction.

37. The global nature of environmental issues has also increased the complexity of problem solving. It is no longer enough to focus on environmental problems in our own backyard, although this remains important. As the ozone depletion problem demonstrates, all people share the same environment. We suffer the consequences of not only our own actions and inaction but also those of people elsewhere in the world.

38. Over the past decade, the Office of the Auditor General has become progressively more active in the environmental area and has done pioneering work in applying audit principles to the environment. Some 42 audits of issues with a significant environmental or sustainable development component have been undertaken. (These audits are listed in Appendix B .)

39. These audits provide valuable insights into the federal government's performance in managing individual environmental or sustainable development issues. Three key themes emerged from our review of them.

  • The implementation gap . In many areas, the federal government's performance falls short of its stated objectives. This gap reflects the failure to translate policy direction into effective action. It ranges from instances of lack of conformity with the Environmental Assessment and Review Process to the failure to meet targets for key programs.
  • Lack of co-ordination and integration . Many of the most pressing issues facing government today cut across departmental mandates and political jurisdictions. Managing these so-called horizontal issues has proved to be a particular challenge for governments. Recognizing the broad sharing of responsibility for the environment and sustainable development, in his 1990 Report to Parliament the Auditor General asked: "Who's minding the store?" That question could as easily be asked today.
  • Inadequate performance review and information to Parliament . Performance review is an important management tool, and reporting to Parliament is critical for accountability. The Auditor General has found weaknesses in both areas. Both senior management in departments and parliamentarians lack information on the benefits Canadians are deriving from the government's environmental programs. For example, the Auditor General indicated that reporting on the federal government's efforts to "green" its operations was neither complete nor objective.

The Mandate of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

The need to improve accountability
40. Discussion of the need for a position of this kind can be traced back at least as far as 1989 (see Exhibit 2 ). In that year, a coalition of environmental, conservation and Aboriginal groups proposed the appointment of an environmental auditor general (EAG) as one part of a comprehensive environmental strategy for Canada. The proposed EAG would report directly to Parliament, and would focus on whether the federal government was complying with environmental laws and regulations.

41. A common thread in subsequent discussion surrounding an EAG was the need for the federal government to improve its performance in protecting the environment and fostering sustainable development and to be more accountable for that performance. Parallels were drawn with the Auditor General's role in helping Parliament to hold the government accountable for the collection and spending of public funds.

42. A number of variants of the EAG concept were discussed by parliamentarians. Much of the debate centred on the need to avoid duplication of roles and responsibilities with other participants in the public policy process, such as environmental groups, Environment Canada and the Auditor General.

43. The federal government chose a package of initiatives aimed at enhancing public accountability and public involvement. Among these were the amendments to the Auditor General Act that provided for the creation of a Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (see Appendix A ). The Commissioner assists the Auditor General in performing the duties set out in the Act that relate to the environment and sustainable development.

A mandate to assist parliamentarians
44. The amendments to the Auditor General Act respected the traditional lines of ministerial accountability to Parliament. Ministers are responsible for policy choices. The role of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development is to assist parliamentarians in their oversight of the federal government's efforts to protect the environment and to foster sustainable development.

45. More specifically, the Commissioner has responsibilities in four main areas:

  • Monitoring sustainable development strategies. Twenty-four federal departments and agencies are required to prepare sustainable development strategies and to table them in the House of Commons by 15 December 1997 (see Appendix C ). The Commissioner is responsible for monitoring the extent to which departments have implemented the action plans and met the objectives associated with their strategies.
  • Audits and special studies of environmental and sustainable development issues. The environment and sustainable development are now formal considerations in the Auditor General's determination of which issues to review and report on to the House of Commons.
  • Petitions. The Commissioner receives petitions on environmental matters that are the responsibility of federal departments and agencies, and monitors the government's responses to them.
  • Reporting. The Commissioner reports annually to the House of Commons on these and other matters relating to the environment and sustainable development that he believes should be brought to the attention of the House.

Work Plan for the Commissioner's Office

Objectives
46. There are four objectives that will guide the work of the Commissioner's office over the next two years:

  • To provide objective, independent analysis and recommendations to members of Parliament to help them examine the government's environmental and sustainable development activities and hold it to account.
  • To work with federal departments and agencies to help strengthen their capacity to manage environmental and sustainable development issues by promoting the adoption of best management practices.
  • To address both environmental protection and sustainable development, by emphasizing better decision making within the federal government. In the shorter term, particular attention will be paid to the federal government's efforts to protect the environment.
  • To continue to focus on key weaknesses in the federal government's management of sustainable development issues identified in previous work by the Office of the Auditor General, and the success and failure of departments in dealing with them. These weaknesses include: the implementation gap; a lack of co-ordination and integration among departments and across jurisdictions; and inadequate performance review and information to Parliament.
Work plan
47. The Commissioner's work plan has four main components; the key elements of the work plan are summarized in Exhibit 3 .

Review of sustainable development strategies
48. Departmental sustainable development strategies are critical for advancing the federal government's sustainable development agenda, and for measuring progress against it. Over the next year, in consultation with departments and agencies, the specific criteria for reviewing departmental strategies will be developed.

49. The framework set out in A Guide to Green Government will be used as the starting point. The Guide indicates that each strategy should be:

  • comprehensive , dealing both with departmental policies and programs and with the management of the department's internal operations;
  • results-oriented , identifying in sustainable development terms the main results the department will achieve, and how it will measure performance toward them; and
  • developed in consultation with the department's clients, partners and other stakeholders.
50. The Guide suggests an approach for departments to use in preparing their strategies. The main elements are set out in Exhibit 4 . The government has also released other documents dealing with more specific elements of departmental strategies: Directions on Greening Government Operations and the Environmental Management System (EMS) Self-Assessment Guide . These documents will form part of the framework for assessing strategies.

51. Strategies will also need to address the management of environmental and sustainable development issues that cut across departmental mandates and political jurisdictions. A number of mechanisms have been put in place to share information and experience among departments on the preparation of sustainable development strategies. We will determine how well they work.

52. In December 1996, deputy ministers and heads of agencies were asked to complete a brief questionnaire on the status of their preparation of sustainable development strategies. Most of the respondents are in the early stages of preparing their strategies, although some departments have already conducted internal and external consultations. Three or four departments are sufficiently advanced that they plan to table their strategies well before the December 1997 deadline.

53. In responding to the questionnaire, departments cited performance measurement, issues that cut across departmental mandates, and awareness/understanding of requirements within the department as the three main difficulties in preparing strategies.

Integrating the fourth "E" into the work of the Office
54. The principal activity of the Office of the Auditor General is legislative auditing, which includes auditing and reporting on the federal government's financial statements; its compliance with federal statutes and regulations; its safeguarding of public assets; its collection of revenue; and its implementation of its policies and programs. The latter category is called "value-for-money" auditing.

55. Traditionally these audits have been conducted in terms of economy, efficiency and effectiveness - known as the three "E"s. As a result of the amendments to the Auditor General Act , the "environment" formally joins the three "E"s that the Auditor General takes into consideration in deciding what to report to the House of Commons. An explanation of the four "E"s is contained in Exhibit 5 .

56. Three priorities have been established for the review of environmental and sustainable development issues. In order of importance, they are:

  • Improved decision making . Environmental problems and unsustainable development are ultimately failures of decision making. A number of federal government activities affect how decisions are made, within the federal government and across society. Over the next two years, three such activities will be audited: environmental assessment, environmental reporting and environmental compliance and enforcement.
  • Key issues of concern to Canadians . A number of key environmental and sustainable development issues will also be reviewed. Examples include the transboundary movement of hazardous waste, ozone depletion, climate change and sustainability of fisheries. For these key issues, questions of accountability and best practices are particularly important.
  • Program issues . Finally, other, more specific program issues with an important environmental or sustainable development dimension will be audited. Examples include energy efficiency and the capital assets in our national parks.
Studies of special interest to Parliament
57. Another part of the Commissioner's work involves exploring environmental and sustainable development issues of significant interest to Parliament. A series of studies on "cutting edge" issues will be conducted, and the results will be presented in future annual reports to Parliament.

58. The purpose behind these studies is three-fold:

  • to help build the capacity of federal departments to prepare and implement strategies for sustainable development;
  • to review key elements of government performance in protecting the environment and fostering sustainable development that may not lend themselves to a strict audit framework; and
  • to develop criteria for audits and for examining sustainable development strategies.
59. In the coming year, special studies will be conducted on the following topics:

  • Meeting our international obligations . Canada is a signatory to a wide range of international agreements to safeguard and improve the environment. This study will provide an inventory of those agreements, and an initial assessment and overview of the extent to which Canada is meeting its commitments under them.
  • Public and private sector performance . A 1995 audit reported that the private sector organizations interviewed were generally further advanced than federal departments and agencies in implementing comprehensive environmental management systems. Nevertheless, very few of the system elements were fully developed in either the public or private sector. Further studies on the differences between public and private sector performance will be conducted to identify best practices and assess their transferability between the two sectors.
  • Performance measurement . As part of preparing their sustainable development strategies, departments are required to identify goals and objectives for sustainable development, including benchmarks for measuring performance. This study is intended to advance the state of the art in applying performance measurement to the management of environmental and sustainable development issues.
  • Accounting for sustainable development . Wise decisions affecting the environment and sustainable development require an understanding of the relative costs and benefits of action and inaction. In some areas, these costs and benefits can be measured and taken into account as decisions are made. In others, the ability to measure is currently quite limited. An assessment of the current state of knowledge will be prepared to identify best practices.
Petitions
60. Openness and transparency are two of the key elements of a sustainable development approach to public policy. The Commissioner, on behalf of the Auditor General, is charged with co-ordinating the receipt of petitions from Canadians, monitoring responses by the appropriate minister and reporting to the House of Commons on the subject matter and status of petitions.

61. Exhibit 6 sets out the steps in the petition process. To date, one petition has been received concerning the environmental assessment of a project sponsored by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency. The petition was forwarded to the Minister responsible for the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA). The Minister has formally responded to the petition, and a copy has been received by the Commissioner.

Making a Difference

62. Like the Auditor General, I took this job because I want to make a difference. At the end of my term as Commissioner, I want to be able to point to concrete achievements to which we have contributed - that the environment is healthier, and that we are closer to making sustainable development a reality. The priorities and work program set out in this first report are means to that end.