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2005 September Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development


Nature is telling us that our current path is unsustainable

Transforming the relationship humans have with nature is among the greatest challenges facing us in the 21st century. Many human activities cause ecological damage, and this situation will only intensify as the global population climbs from six billion today, with some projecting a level of about nine billion by 2050. In addition, China, India, and other developing countries are increasing their consumption of fossil fuels and other natural resources. Serious environmental consequences from habitat loss, the decline of the world's fish stocks, air pollution, climate change, and deteriorating fresh water systems will, in turn, have major negative economic and social impacts on communities and nations worldwide.

In my role as Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, I hear about environmental problems from around the world. It is clear that environmental limits are real and are being approached everywhere, including Canada. Nature is telling us that our current path is unsustainable. This year the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, involving about 1,360 experts from around the world, reached this troubling conclusion:

At the heart of this assessment is a stark warning. Human activity is putting such strain on the natural functions of Earth that the ability of the planet's ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. The provision of food, fresh water, energy, and materials to a growing population has come at considerable cost to the complex systems of plants, animals, and biological processes that make the planet habitable. ... Nearly two thirds of the services provided by nature to humankind are found to be in decline worldwide. In effect, the benefits reaped from our engineering of the planet have been achieved by running down natural capital assets.

Canada is not immune from this global environmental decline, and the accompanying decline in our ability to sustain our needs and those of future generations. If Canada is to avoid such consequences, we must all take bold steps, with government leading the way.

Did you know?

  • Between 10 to 30% of mammal, bird, and amphibian species globally are currently threatened with extinction.
  • The frequency and impact of floods and fires has increased significantly in the past 50 years, in part due to ecosystem changes.
  • One quarter of important commercial fish stocks are overexploited or significantly depleted.

Source: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005

Sustainable development: The approach we have chosen

In 1987 the World Commission on Environment and Development released its landmark report, Our Common Future. Since then, sustainable development has become widely recognized as the chosen approach to integrate environmental, economic, and social concerns (Exhibit 1).

While the concept is almost 20 years old, implementing sustainable development is still in its early stages, including in Canada. Sustainable development has been compared in scale to two other great transformations in human history: the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution. The changes to our society that the sustainability "revolution" will bring will be as significant as those brought by the other two. Governments have a central role to play, not only in implementing sustainable development, but also in moving their citizens and industries toward sustainability.

This move toward sustainability can be seen in a multitude of initiatives to entrench sustainable development into public policy and industry practice. Occasionally, on the global level we can see the making of a revolution in thinking and practice (Exhibit 2).

The countries that adapt the fastest to sustainable development will seize the opportunities. Will Canada be one of these?

Sustainable development is feasible, and there are many real opportunities for innovative people to find solutions to the environmental problems we create. As the world responds to this challenge in the early 21st century, those who anticipate and prevent environmental degradation will save money and create economic opportunities. The countries and companies that adapt the fastest will seize the opportunities. Will Canada be one of these?

After five years as Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, I have seen uneven performance by the federal government in creating and implementing a sustainable development approach to policy and operations. While the government continues to make some progress against its sustainable development goals, on several occasions, it has fallen short of making the level of commitment needed.

The government's chronic inability to sustain initiatives

A productive, healthy environment is at the heart of the concept of sustainable development. The way we damage our ecosystems has repercussions on a number of issues that we examine in this year's audits. These include the quality of drinking water, the health of our oceans, and our stores of biological diversity.

As always, we examined issues covering a broad array of environmental and sustainable development issues (Exhibit 3). We also audited departments' responses to environmental petitions submitted by Canadians (see Exhibit 4). A recurring theme throughout this year's Report is that the federal government suffers from a chronic inability to see its own initiatives to completion; it starts out but rarely, if ever, reaches the finish line.

Drinking water and human health

Access to fresh water in general, and safe drinking water in particular, is of great concern to Canadians. Safe drinking water is a basic requirement of human health, and Canadians assume that the water they drink will be of high quality in a developed country like ours. The truth, however, is that when federal responsibility is involved, not all Canadians can assume that their drinking water is always safe. The government is not working hard enough to protect Canadians from unsafe drinking water.

While the provinces and territories have the legislative responsibility for regulating the provision of safe drinking water to the public in general, federal responsibilities for drinking water can have an impact on millions of people. These include responsibilities for water consumed by residents of First Nations communities; federal employees; and passengers on trains, airplanes, and cruise ships travelling between provinces and internationally.

In examining federal responsibilities for the safety of drinking water, we found gaps that may put people's health at risk.

Drinking water in First Nations communities

Across Canada, approximately half a million people live in First Nations communities. Many of these people are exposed to risks from unsafe drinking water. For example, in 2001 Indian and Northern Affairs Canada found a significant risk to the quality or safety of drinking water in three quarters of the water systems in First Nations communities. People in these communities do not benefit from the same safeguards on drinking water as most Canadians who live off reserves. The main reasons are a lack of a regulatory regime for drinking water in First Nations communities and fragmented technical support available to First Nations for the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of water systems. There are also a number of management and operational issues that contribute to this, such as inconsistent implementation of government guidelines and failure to carry out water testing.

In examining federal responsibilities related to the safety of drinking water, we found gaps that may put people's health at risk.

Unless strong action is taken, it is unlikely that the federal First Nations Water Management Strategy, a five-year initiative approved in 2003 with a budget of $600 million, will improve the quality and safety of First Nations drinking water on a continuing basis (Chapter 5 provides further detail).

Other federal responsibilities for drinking water

Apart from First Nations communities, the federal government has a number of other responsibilities to ensure safe drinking water for Canadians.

The federal government develops drinking water guidelines in partnership with provinces and territories. The guidelines specify the maximum acceptable concentration of contaminants in drinking water. They are used at the federal, provincial, and territorial levels in different ways, ranging from general guidance to legally required standards. The process to develop the guidelines, although sound, is slow, sometimes delaying the planned time for developing the guidelines by several years. At the current pace, it could take over 10 years to deal with a current backlog of about 50 guidelines that the federal government needs to examine to ensure that they are up-to-date.

Health Canada is responsible for inspecting water quality on aircraft, trains, and cruise ships that travel between provinces, and internationally. However, it is not fulfilling this responsibility on passenger aircraft, where it no longer carries out routine inspections due to unresolved funding issues between the government and air carriers. Health Canada therefore cannot assure millions of Canadian travellers that the tap water used for drinking and food preparation on board passenger aircraft is safe.

Federal responsibility is also clearly defined in regulations for the protection of federal employees, which state that they are to be provided with water that meets the drinking water guidelines. The six federal departments and agencies we looked at had different internal procedures and requirements for testing. This resulted in mixed compliance with the guidelines, with some sites surpassing the guidelines, and others not testing at all. Health Canada is currently preparing uniform guidance for departments, which is needed as a step toward remedying the patchy federal compliance with the drinking water guidelines (Chapter 4 provides further detail).

Natural capital

Natural capital is a crucially important building block for a sustainable society. Natural capital refers to natural resources, such as water and oil, land that provides space on which to live and work, and the ecosystems that maintain clean water, air, and a stable climate. Unlike other types of capital, such as buildings or machines, natural capital is often irreplaceable. Stewardship of our natural capital has fallen short of commitments made by Canada, both domestically and internationally. While our audits found some good efforts involving the management of natural capital, these are often hindered by problems with implementation and management.

Stewardship of our natural capital has fallen short of commitments made by Canada, both domesticaly and internationally.

Oceans management

Ocean ecosystems are deteriorating everywhere, including in Canada. Expectations were raised that the 1996 Oceans Act and the 2002 Canada's Oceans Strategy would help solve these problems; however, those expectations have not been met. The main tools of the Oceans Act—integrated management plans and marine protected areas—have not accomplished the desired results. Fisheries and Oceans Canada has fallen far short of meeting its commitments to develop and implement these tools. For example, marine protected areas are one of the primary means to protect marine habitat and biodiversity. However, of the 13 areas of interest identified between 1998 and 2000, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has designated only two as marine protected areas. At this rate, Canada is in danger of not meeting its international commitment to establish representative networks of marine protected areas by 2012.

The slow progress can be attributed, in part, to a lack of funding, poorly defined results, and weak accountability. Furthermore, there is evidence that interdepartmental committees are not providing leadership, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada is having trouble breaking out of the "fisheries" mindset to lead on broader oceans issues.

Expectations are rising again as a result of the 2005 release of Canada's Oceans Action Plan and Canada's Federal Marine Protected Areas Strategy. It is critical that Fisheries and Oceans Canada maintain the momentum gained from these and follow through on the planned designation of new marine protected areas. Canada was once a world leader in oceans management and should seize the opportunity to regain this position (Chapter 1 provides further detail).

Ecological integrity in Canada's parks

Our national parks are living monuments to Canada's natural heritage. The health of Canada's national parks is in danger, jeopardizing the ecological and economic benefits they are intended to provide. This stress is evident both inside and outside the parks and stems from factors such as development and visitor use.

To help the Parks Canada Agency achieve its mandate, the new Canada National Parks Act has established that the Agency's main priorities are the ecological integrity of national parks and Canadians' understanding and enjoyment of the parks. To back this up, major new financial resources have flowed to Parks Canada in the 2003 and 2005 budgets, which it will use to advance these priorities.

These are important developments, but further improvements are needed. For example, not all park management plans are up-to-date in the 12 parks we examined. These plans are supposed to set out specific objectives and actions a park will undertake to maintain or restore ecological integrity. In addition, reporting on the implementation of these plans is required annually, but this has not been happening on a regular basis. Parks Canada also needs to improve its national state of the parks reports, so that they communicate more clearly how the state of national parks is changing over time. The results of monitoring and restoration projects also need to be better used at the park level to inform visitors and enhance public education and awareness.

With the new funding and the new measures it is putting in place, the federal government has started to move forward. Parks Canada has an opportunity to make a real difference in the management of national parks and in the public's understanding of national parks. Successful and consistent implementation across all parks over the next few years will be critical in determining if Parks Canada will realize this opportunity (Chapter 2 provides further detail).

Canadian Biodiversity Strategy

Canada was the first major industrialized country to ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992, and in 1996 the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy was endorsed by federal, provincial, and territorial ministers. Since then, implementation of the strategy has faltered, leaving important initiatives to drift.

This year's follow-up is our third audit of federal implementation of the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy since 1998. Problems identified in our previous audits persist, and the new commitments we examined in the areas of biodiversity science and monitoring produced no tangible results or were behind schedule. Understanding Canada's biodiversity is key to protecting it from human-driven damage and ensuring that it continues to provide Canadians with numerous benefits, from clean air and water to the pollination of food crops. Almost ten years after the federal government signed on to the strategy, there is no coherent plan to implement it.

Work is taking place on a new national approach, although it is still in its early stages. This approach involves federal departments, as well as provincial and territorial governments, which are also responsible for biodiversity. Given the unsatisfactory progress in the areas we examined, and the lack of direction for the strategy overall, the federal government needs to take a hard look at its approach to biodiversity, assess how the strategy is being implemented, and tell Canadians how it plans to make the strategy work (Chapter 3 provides further detail).

Sustainable development in government

Following the release of the 1987 report, Our Common Future, governments around the world chose sustainable development as the approach to get us off the wrong path of non-sustainability and collapse, and onto the path of sustainability and renewal. Implementing a sustainable development approach to governing is a creative process that takes time and leadership.

An important sustainable development tool: Green procurement

I have argued before that the Government of Canada is not making adequate use of all the tools available to promote sustainable development. Green procurement is a prime example. With reported spending of about $13 billion in 2003, the federal government is one of the largest consumers of goods and services in Canada. By greening its procurement, the federal government can reduce its environmental impact and create a demand in the marketplace for sustainable products and services. Green procurement fits well with the government's interest in merging "competitiveness and environmental sustainability," as it can push Canadian business to the forefront of the sustainability revolution. The government has long recognized these benefits and, since 1992, has made a commitment to pursue green procurement.

I have argued before that the Government of Canada is not making adequate use of all the tools available to promote sustainable development. Green procurement is a prime example.

Despite the compelling business case, strong sustainability benefits, and repeated government commitments, the government is far from using the vast potential of green procurement to achieve sustainability. It is astounding that the government has been promising a policy to direct departments to green their procurement for over a decade—and the policy still is not ready. While we wait, opportunities to make environmentally sound choices are being missed every day. Will the government meet its most recent promise in the Speech from the Throne, to implement the policy by 2006?

The government regularly calls on Canadians to green their daily activities; green procurement is a key test of whether the government is willing to do what it expects Canadians to do (Chapter 6 provides further detail).

The unrealized potential of sustainable development strategies

Since the mid-1990s, the federal government has chosen a "decentralized" approach to institutionalizing sustainable development, by having individual departments develop and implement their own sustainable development strategies. However, the process for the strategies is government-wide and needs government-wide direction. Yet, the often-promised federal sustainable development strategy has not been delivered. The federal government could not even agree on priorities in time to influence the 2004 departmental strategies. As a result, departments had little direction in co-ordinating their own strategies.

Canada unfortunately faces a serious barrier to making progress on sustainable development—a lack of leadership at the senior management level. The Privy Council Office delegated responsibility to deputy ministers at the Environment and Sustainable Development Co-ordinating Committee for setting government-wide expectations for departmental sustainable development strategies. The deputy ministers didn't deliver on many of the expectations of the Clerk of the Privy Council, and the committee ceased activities over the past year.

Inaction on international commitments

The deputy ministers' Environment and Sustainable Development Co-ordinating Committee was tasked by the Clerk of the Privy Council to develop an action plan to ensure implementation of commitments Canada made at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. Despite this direction from the Clerk, and our recommendations since 2002 that an action plan be prepared, the committee has not done this.

Changes are required in the way sustainable development is institutionalized. Two things are key:

  • After many promises and false starts, a federal sustainable development strategy is long overdue. The government has many important green initiatives, including several announced in the last Speech from the Throne. But, without some form of a federal sustainable development strategy, parliamentarians and Canadians are left without a clear idea of the government's overall sustainable development plan, how it will get there, and what progress it has made. A federal sustainable development strategy would provide common priorities, co-ordinate departmental efforts, and help to realize the potential of departmental sustainable development strategies.
  • A new deputy ministers' committee has been established to replace the Environment and Sustainable Development Co-ordinating Committee. In order to succeed where previous ones have failed, this committee will need to be much more actively engaged, and deputy ministers will need to be held more accountable to meet their commitments.

The government must move quickly in order to have this in place for the next round of sustainable development strategies, which will be completed by December 2006. If not, we will lose another opportunity to improve the sustainable development strategies—and the strategies will go another three years without the government realizing their full potential (Chapter 7 provides further detail).

What will it take for the government to cross the finish line?

The consistent message throughout this year's audits is that the federal government is chronically unable to sustain initiatives, once they are launched. Federal experience with the Canadian Biodiversity Strategy, Canada's Oceans Strategy, and guidance for sustainable development strategies are just the latest examples of this failure to follow through on bold promises.

After five years of auditing government performance, I have often asked myself why the government does not reach the finish line on its environmental and sustainable development commitments. I have come to the conclusion that there are several root causes:

  • Government leadership has a tendency to commit without putting in place the structure or resources to deliver on its promises.
  • Deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers are not held accountable for the performance of their departments in initiating and seeing through to completion more sustainable forms of development. Leadership and disciplined senior management are required to get the job done.
  • Organizational silos and turf protection impair the integration of sustainable development across departments—integration that is inherently needed. As a result, anything that requires action across departments is particularly vulnerable to collapse.
  • In many areas, the federal government keeps reinventing the wheel by changing key staff and changing the design of programs, without regard for achieving results.

Because of these problems, isolated pockets of good effort and success are often outweighed by backsliding in other areas. So the performance is once again unimpressive—the government continues to talk a good line about sustainable development and sometimes commits financial resources, but often fails to adequately implement its own commitments. This is not good news, given the mounting evidence that we are on an unsustainable path.

The government's current promises, if fulfilled, would improve Canada's environmental position. But further new thinking is required to truly achieve sustainable development. Albert Einstein stated that, "the significant problems we face cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them." Achieving sustainability within a generation will require that we Canadians significantly transform our society. The federal government should be leading this sustainability revolution.

I am by no means the only one saying that the federal government has to improve its performance in this regard. There have been two recent, high-level calls for a government transformation toward sustainability. The Senate's Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources recently tabled a report that stated:

It's time for the Government of Canada to step up to the plate, to show leadership, and to introduce the necessary reforms. This requires greater political will, greater co-ordination and integration within and across federal departments, and perhaps most importantly, a greater recognition that sustainable development is one of the most pressing issues facing the country today.

Canada's most senior public servant, the Clerk of the Privy Council, testified before the Senate Committee:

We are looking for a true shift to sustainability in how we produce, consume and live our lives. ... we will roll out a much more committed strategy to sustainable development that will really take hold.

He stated that we need "long-term, fundamental, transformative change" in our industrial processes and to "make the culture or paradigm shift" within the public service. He went on to say that the government must become a leader in green procurement and that the government will make greater use of fiscal instruments to pursue sustainable development goals. The Clerk concluded his remarks by stating: "I believe that we can be a leader in environmental sustainable development within a generation."

I could not have said it better myself.