Briefing on the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development’s role and overview of the Commissioner’s 2021 Reports 3 to 7

Opening Statement before the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development

Briefing on the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development’s role and overview of the Commissioner’s 2021 Reports 3 to 7

(2021 Reports 3 to 7 of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development)

1 February 2022

Jerry V. DeMarco
Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

Thank you, Mr. Chair. We are happy to appear before your committee this morning. I would like to acknowledge that this hearing is taking place on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg People. With me today are Kim Leach, James McKenzie, David Normand, and Michelle Salvail, who were responsible for the reports that were tabled in the House of Commons on 25 November 2021.

I will start by providing an overview of the Commissioner’s role before going over the findings of these reports.

The Office of the Auditor General of Canada conducts performance audits, including audits of the environment and sustainable development that are led by the Commissioner, who is appointed by the Auditor General. We examine whether the activities and programs of federal organizations are managed with due regard for economy, efficiency, effectiveness, and environmental impact. We provide parliamentarians with objective, fact-based information and expert advice.

On behalf of the Auditor General, the Commissioner reports to Parliament at least once a year on environment and sustainable development matters that the Commissioner considers should be brought to Parliament’s attention. In practice, I will normally be reporting twice a year. The reports are referred to this committee.

The Commissioner helps the Office of the Auditor General of Canada incorporate environmental and sustainable development considerations, as appropriate, across its work. This includes considering the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals when selecting, designing, and carrying out performance audits. These goals are a priority area for the work of the entire office.

The Commissioner also reviews and comments on the federal government’s draft sustainable development strategy under the Federal Sustainable Development Act. Once the strategy is implemented, we monitor and report on the extent to which federal departments and agencies contribute to meeting the targets of the overall federal strategy and the objectives of individual departmental strategies. We also review the fairness of the information in the federal government’s progress reports on the implementation of the strategy.

The Commissioner manages and reports on the environmental petitions process on behalf of the Auditor General. Through this process, Canadians can directly ask federal ministers specific questions about environmental and sustainable development issues under federal jurisdiction and are guaranteed a response.

In addition, as you are aware, the Canadian Net‑Zero Emissions Accountability Act came into force in June 2021. The act requires the Commissioner to examine, report on, and make recommendations about the Government of Canada’s implementation of measures to mitigate climate change, including those meant to achieve the government’s most recent greenhouse gas emission target.

I’m going to turn now to our recent reports. The first report that I would like to focus on provides the findings of our audit of the Emissions Reduction Fund for the oil and gas sector. This fund was part of the measures that the Government of Canada rolled out in response to the COVID‑19 pandemic. It aimed to reduce harmful emissions while maintaining employment and encouraging investments in oil and gas companies.

We found that the program was poorly designed because it did not link funding to net emission reductions from conventional onshore oil and gas operations. For example, in two thirds of the 40 projects funded by the Emissions Reduction Fund, companies stated in their applications that the funding would allow them to increase their production levels. When production increases, so do the related emissions, and these increases were not reflected in Natural Resources Canada’s projections.

To help Canada achieve its national targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Natural Resources Canada should make sure that its policies, programs, and measures are based on reliable estimates of expected emission reductions.

I will now move on to our next report. In this audit, we examined whether Environment and Climate Change Canada and Agriculture and Agri‑Food Canada were working together, using a risk-based approach, to reduce algal blooms caused by excess nutrient pollution in 3 Canadian water basins. The 3 basins we examined were Lake Erie, Lake Winnipeg, and the Wolastoq, Saint John River.

Canada has a stated goal of increasing sustainable agricultural production, which could increase nutrient runoff. Excess nutrients can lead to runaway growth of algae, which can in turn produce toxins that are harmful to humans, livestock, pets, and wildlife.

We found that the 2 departments were moving in the right direction but could have an even greater impact on freshwater quality outcomes if they further coordinated their science efforts and shared information with other organizations involved in water resource management.

For the next report, as we do each year, we assessed the progress of selected departments and agencies in implementing their sustainable development strategies, focusing on transparency and accountability in reporting. We reviewed departmental and agency actions under 3 federal goals: healthy coasts and oceans, pristine lakes and rivers, and sustainable food.

Overall, reporting on actions to achieve the federal goals was poor. Departments and agencies did not provide results for almost half of the actions that they reported on. Gaps in reporting make it difficult for parliamentarians and Canadians to understand progress being made against Canada’s sustainable development commitments.

Our recent reports also included the annual report on environmental petitions. We received 14 petitions from July 2020 to June 2021. They raised concerns in areas that included biodiversity, climate change, and toxic substances.

I’m going to turn now to my last report, which is not an audit but a summary of lessons learned from Canada’s climate change efforts since 1990.

After more than 30 years, the trend in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, which create harmful climate impacts is going up. Despite repeated government commitments to decrease emissions, they have increased by more than 20% since 1990.

At the heart of this report are 8 lessons learned from Canada’s action and inaction on the enduring climate crisis.

Leadership is the first lesson. Stronger leadership and coordination are needed to drive progress on climate change. Other lessons include reducing dependence on high-emission industries, learning to adapt to climate change impacts, investing in a climate-resilient future, increasing public awareness, acting on and not just speaking about climate targets, involving all climate solution actors, and protecting the interests of future generations.

In closing, there is a need for the federal government to achieve real outcomes on environmental protection and sustainable development—not just words on paper or unfulfilled promises. All too often, Canada’s environmental commitments are not met with the actions needed to protect air, land, water, and wildlife, now and for future generations. And this is a trend we urgently need to reverse.

It is my hope that you will invite us and government officials to appear before your committee on every one of our audits, and at any other time when we may be able to support your work. Using our audit work and the expertise and insight of department and agency officials and other stakeholders helps your committee enhance accountability. Asking departments and agencies to provide the committee with action plans to implement our recommendations and any recommendations that the committee makes will also help raise the progress bar on environmental and sustainable development issues, on behalf of all Canadians.

Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening remarks. We are happy to answer any questions the committee may have.