Briefing on the role of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Opening Statement to the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development

Briefing on the role of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

18 February 2016

Julie Gelfand
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Thank you, Madam Chair. We are happy to appear before your committee this morning. It is very important to us that parliamentarians take an interest in our work. With me today are two audit principals, Kimberley Leach and Andrew Ferguson.

With your permission, I would like to begin by providing a bit of historical context about the function of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.

The idea of having some form of environmental auditor general for Canada had its origins in 1987 with the landmark Brundtland Commission Report that introduced the concept of sustainable development, which was again discussed at the 1992 Rio Summit.

After much discussion and consideration by Parliament and others, the position of Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development was created in 1995, and was made part of the Office of the Auditor General of Canada by amendment to the Auditor General Act.

The amendments to the Act also created two new government processes, namely departmental sustainable development strategies and environmental petitions which I will touch upon briefly.

Let me now give you an overview of our mandate.

The Commissioner is appointed by the Auditor General and provides parliamentarians with objective, fact-based information and expert advice on the federal government’s efforts to protect the environment and foster sustainable development. We carry out these responsibilities under two acts.

First, under the Auditor General Act, our Office conducts performance audits and monitors departmental progress on whether activities designed to implement federal environment and sustainable development policies and programs are being implemented effectively and are delivering results. We also manage the environmental petitions process that enables Canadians to obtain responses directly from federal ministers on specific environmental and sustainable development issues under federal jurisdiction.

Under the Federal Sustainable Development Act, our Office reviews and comments on the federal government’s sustainable development strategy. We also monitor and report on the extent to which federal departments contribute to meeting the targets and goals set out in the federal sustainable development strategy.

In addition to these responsibilities, we also help the Office of the Auditor General incorporate environmental issues, as appropriate, in all of its work for Parliament.

On behalf of the Auditor General, the Commissioner reports to Parliament at least once a year.

I would now like to take a minute to talk about sustainable development and climate change. I believe that these two issues are intertwined, and that they are among the most pressing of our times. As such, my future work will be focusing on these issues.

In September 2015, Canada and 192 other countries committed to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and to achieving the related 17 Sustainable Development goals.

In addition, prior to the UN Climate Change Conference which took place in Paris in December 2015, Canada indicated that it would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent compared to 2005 levels, and that it would do so by 2030. Since then, the government has indicated that it considers this target to be a minimum, and it has committed to work with the provinces to develop a Canadian plan to tackle climate change.

This country’s next Federal Sustainable Development Strategy is due in 2016. The full integration into this next strategy of the 2030 United Nations sustainable development goals and the Paris climate change commitments will be a clear indicator of Canada’s commitment to sustainable development and responding to climate change. I look forward to reporting to Parliament on the government’s progress in achieving these all-important goals.

Madam Chair, I am always interested in hearing from parliamentarians about their interests and concerns, and as always, we are available to appear before your committee at any time. Your attention to our reports supports accountability. It allows you, as parliamentarians, to ask senior officials to appear before you to answer questions about our findings, and explain how they intend to carry out your direction and our recommendations. For example, you could request that departments provide you with action plans to implement our recommendations.

In the years ahead, I look forward to continuing my work to provide you with the independent information that I hope you find helpful in exercising your oversight role.

Madam Chair, that concludes my opening remarks. We are happy to answer any questions you may have.