Federal Sustainable Development Act

Opening Statement to the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development

Federal Sustainable Development Act

22 March 2016

Julie Gelfand
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Madam Chair, it is a pleasure for us to be here today to share our views on the Federal Sustainable Development Act. I am joined by two principals from the Office, Jim McKenzie and Andrew Hayes.

As Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, I am responsible for monitoring the sustainable development strategies of federal departments and agencies. I also am responsible for commenting on the draft Federal Sustainable Development Strategy, or ”federal strategy,” and for reviewing the fairness of the government’s progress report in relation to its federal strategy.

The Federal Sustainable Development Act is an important piece of legislation. I would like to discuss three topics that the Committee may wish to consider as it undertakes its review of the Act.

First, I would like to talk about the environmental focus of the Act. The Act defines sustainable development as meaning “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Despite this definition, the purpose of the Act is directed towards environmental decision making. As a result, we have noted that previous federal strategies have focused significantly more on the environment and less on the economic and social aspects of sustainable development.

The Act could actually be considered to be a federal environmental strategy act. Our experience in reviewing previous federal strategies supports this characterization. In 2013, we recommended that Environment and Climate Change Canada should lead work aimed at integrating the social and economic dimensions of sustainable development into the federal strategy.

Practically speaking, sustainable development means thinking about how decisions can affect the economy, society, the environment, and the well-being of future generations. The Committee may wish to consider whether the purpose of the Federal Sustainable Development Act should be expanded to explicitly include all of these components.

Second, we encourage the Committee to look at whether the Act can strengthen how the federal government considers the economic, social, and environmental aspects when making policy and program decisions.

There is currently a Cabinet directive thatrequires departments and agencies to identify potential important environmental effects when new programs, policies, or plans are proposed.

For the most part, departments and agencies that we have audited have not adequately applied the Cabinet directive. For example, in my 2015 report, I found that the Cabinet directive was applied in only 5 out of 1,705 proposals that the four departments we audited submitted to their ministers for approval. For proposals submitted to Cabinet by these departments, I reported that the Cabinet directive had been applied in 110 out of 250 cases.

Despite these poor results, I believe that a relatively simple amendment to the Act would produce meaningful results. In particular, the Committee may wish to consider the merits of entrenching an enhanced version of the Cabinet directive in a law such as the Federal Sustainable Development Act. By “enhanced”, I mean that the departments and agencies should be required to incorporate not just environmental but also social and economic considerations into the development of public policies, plans, and programs.

Entrenching an enhanced version of the Cabinet directive into the Act would send a clear message that sustainable development, and particularly the well-being of future generations, must not be ignored when the government is making decisions.

As part of a law passed by Parliament, the Cabinet directive and its requirements are more likely to be respected by departments and agencies. In addition, my Office would have a stronger basis on which to assess the sustainable development activities of the government.

Finally, I would like to suggest that the Committee considers strengthening the role that all parliamentary committees can play in relation to sustainable development. In my view, an opportunity exists for parliamentary committees to play a stronger role in promoting the consideration of the needs and well-being of future generations by government.

Under the Act, the federal strategy is referred to the standing committees of the House of Commons and the Senate that normally consider matters related to the environment. However, sustainable development involves more than just the environment. In my view, the federal strategy should be considered by every parliamentary committee.

Each parliamentary committee could then hold the departments that report to them accountable for the contributions that they committed to make toward the goals and targets of the federal strategy.

This would likely result in a more systematic focus across government on how actions today could impact the well-being of future generations. I would expect that transparency and accountability around decision making would be enhanced. And my Office would be pleased to support the other committees that undertake this work.

Madam Chair, your Committee can play an important role in raising the profile of sustainable development. I commend the Committee for the work that it is conducting.

This concludes my opening remarks. We would be happy to answer the Committee’s questions. Thank you.