2023 Reports 1 to 5 of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to the Parliament of Canada—Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development’s Opening Statement to the news conference

2023 Reports 1 to 5 of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to the Parliament of CanadaCommissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development’s Opening Statement to the news conference

Good morning, and thank you for joining me. I’m Jerry DeMarco, Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. I would like to begin by acknowledging that we are on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people.

I am here today to discuss 5 performance audit reports that were presented to Parliament this morning. Together, these 5 reports show that climate change and biodiversity are intrinsically linked and that these 2 crises need to be addressed through decisive and concerted actions.

When I look at all of the Office of the Auditor General of Canada’s reports that have flagged these grave concerns over the years, it’s clear that we have been repeatedly ringing the alarm bells. Now, these bells are almost deafening.

Our past audits show that Canada has failed to meet many of its climate and biodiversity targets, and I’m extremely concerned that without a significant shift in approach, this trend will only continue. Even if we succeed at reducing greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and restoring natural habitats, there’s no coming back from some of the damage that has already occurred: while trees can be replanted, extinct species do not magically come back to life.

We can learn from past failures, limit the worst effects of climate change and biodiversity loss, and build a better future for generations to come. Or we can keep walking the same path, ignoring the deafening alarm bells, and leaving our children to face the consequences of our failures.

Our first audit focused on whether Environment and Climate Change Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Parks Canada met the timelines set out in the Species at Risk Act for developing the documents that are required to support the recovery of wildlife species at risk. We also wanted to know whether the objectives set out in the recovery strategies and management plans were being met.

Overall, we found that the 3 organizations’ efforts to plan and report on the recovery of species at risk were slow and lacking, and that objectives were being met for less than half of all species for which there was sufficient data.

What this means on the ground is that 416 of the 520 species at risk that have been reassessed since 1982 either showed no change in status or had entered a higher risk category. In other words, in more than 4 decades, the status had improved for only about 1 in every 5 species at risk.

We found large backlogs of progress reports that are intended to keep departments accountable and show whether the actions being taken are having a meaningful impact. Of the 399 progress reports that Environment and Climate Change Canada was required to produce, it had completed only 1. Without this ongoing monitoring, the government may miss opportunities to improve outcomes for species.

Turning now to our second audit, which also focused on species at risk. We looked at whether the federal government took urgent action when necessary to protect wildlife species and their habitats on non-federal lands.

We found that Environment and Climate Change Canada did not have a proactive approach to providing the Minister with timely advice on using discretionary, emergency powers.

The discretionary powers in the Species at Risk Act allow the federal government to step in when provinces and territories are failing to effectively protect species at risk and their habitats on non-federal lands. Since the act came into force almost 20 years ago, a total of 3 emergency orders have been issued, and all were the result of pressure from external sources. The federal government has the power to step in when there are urgent threats to a species, but it lacks initiative and policies to guide its actions. As such, Environment and Climate Change Canada’s actions do not reflect the urgency of the worldwide biodiversity crisis. Hundreds of Canadian species are at risk—from the iconic caribou pictured on our 25‑cent coin to the highly endangered spotted owl—but they can still be saved.

I’ll turn now to our audit of forests and climate change. The federal government launched the 2 Billion Trees Program to counter climate change, enhance biodiversity, and support human well-being. We found that given the number of trees planted so far, this program is unlikely to succeed unless significant changes are made.

Although Natural Resources Canada nearly met its goal to plant 30 million trees in 2021, the department fell well short of its 2022 goal of 60 million trees. Delays in signing agreements with planting partners not only have significantly challenged the department’s ability to plant the number of trees it had planned for 2022 but the delays will also affect subsequent years, which have much more ambitious goals.

We also found that Natural Resources Canada, working with Environment and Climate Change Canada, did not provide a clear and complete picture of the role of Canada’s forests in greenhouse gas emissions. For example, emission estimates varied significantly in reports over the years because of recalculations prompted by data updates. This changed whether forests were reported as a net source of emissions rather than capturing emissions, making it extremely difficult to make informed decisions.

I must stress how important it is that we do not give up and that we, instead, change course to successfully implement solutions such as the 2 Billion Trees Program and also work to get a full picture of how our forests affect greenhouse gas emissions. Restoring habitats, including forests, is part of the solution to the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.

In our audit of emission reductions through greenhouse gas regulations, we examined whether Canada achieved its targets and contributed to the country’s long-term climate change mitigation goals.

Environment and Climate Change Canada did not know the extent to which the greenhouse gas regulations we examined contributed to meeting Canada’s overall emission reduction target. This was because the department’s approach to measuring emissions did not attribute results to specific regulations, recognizing that it is challenging to do so because of interactions between policy measures.

When we looked at individual regulations, we found mixed results. The regulations aimed at reducing emissions from power generation achieved their targets, but some of the regulations that aimed to reduce emissions from vehicles did not. The department was also very slow to develop new regulations, such as regulations about clean fuels.

Regulations are an important element of achieving Canada’s emission reduction target. However, without comprehensive impact information, the federal government does not know whether it is using the right tools to sufficiently reduce emissions to meet this target.

Our last audit examined whether the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions Canada—also known as OSFI—incorporated climate-related financial risks into its risk management systems and frameworks for federally regulated financial institutions and pension plans.

Climate-related financial risks can take different forms. The fires in and around Fort McMurray are one example, which saw devastating losses for an entire community. When damage is extensive, homeowners may have trouble paying their mortgages, which would lead to monetary losses for banks. Banks might then restrict lending, and insurers might increase premiums.

We found that, although OSFI has recently made meaningful progress toward integrating these risks into its supervisory framework, full implementation is years away.

In addition, OSFI did not view its role as including the advancement of Canada’s broader climate goals. There is an opportunity for OSFI to consider how to adapt its role to further Canada’s whole‑of‑government approach to climate change and sustainable development.

It is encouraging that OSFI and the international community of financial supervisors have recognized that climate change poses risks to financial institutions and the broader financial system and that they are moving forward in addressing this issue. However, action is overdue and is now urgent.

With these most recent reports, the list of failures grows longer, yet again. Unlike the obviousness of an immediate pandemic, the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss are chronic, insidious, and, too often, ignored because their gravity becomes apparent primarily over the long term. Government has in place a range of policy tools to better protect wildlife, restore habitats, reduce greenhouse gases, and better prepare for climate change. The question I ask is whether the government will step up—for our sake, for nature, and for future generations.

Acting now can influence outcomes. As we celebrate Earth Day this weekend, which bears the theme “Invest in Our Planet,” let’s remember that it isn’t too late to switch gears and refocus the discussion on achieving targets and reversing the current trend of failure. The findings and recommendations in these reports are part of that discussion.

Thank you. I am now ready to answer your questions.