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2003 Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development The Commissioner's Perspective—2003 — The Gap Between Commitments and Actions

2003 October Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

The Commissioner's Perspective—2003 — The Gap Between Commitments and Actions

Main Points

Keeping a watch on the environment

The continuing gap between environmental commitments and actions


Appendix—Auditor General Act—Excerpts

Main Points

1. Each year, I highlight significant issues based on my environmental audit work over the past year. This year, I focussed on pesticides management, road transportation in urban areas, case studies on federal sustainable development strategies, and the petitions process.

2. This Report deals with the gap between federal environmental commitments and actions. The most pressing issues I identified relate to how the federal government manages the safety and accessibility of pesticides. Specifically, I have found that the federal government

3. Other issues related to the federal government's commitments involve Canada's Kyoto target. After a great deal of deliberation, the federal government ratified Kyoto—a major international environmental agreement. I chose to examine how selected urban road transportation programs would contribute toward Canada's Kyoto target. I found that the federal government is taking steps intended to help meet its Kyoto commitments; however, for various reasons it is currently unable to report on the contribution its measures are making.

4. The federal government has made a clear commitment to move Canada on a path to sustainability through its sustainable development strategies. These strategies are the responsibility of 25 major federal departments; they involve economic, social, and environmental issues. This year I took a targeted look at four departments and found mixed results. I note that Industry Canada has made a substantial effort to move forward on eco-efficiency and environmental technology. However, in all the cases I examined, more could be done to improve the measuring and reporting of the impacts of actions taken. Environment Canada and Human Resources Development Canada need to substantially increase their efforts to fulfil the commitments that we examine in this Report.

5. The petitions process is a growing success story. Canadians increasingly use this process to engage the federal government in issues that affect them at the local level. In some cases, Canadians are getting both commitments and actions that lead to concrete results. This year, I have begun to follow up on some commitments made in response to petitions, and I found mixed results. I will continue to follow up on petition commitments made by departments.

Keeping a watch on the environment

6. This is my third report as Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. I am the environmental arm of the Office of the Auditor General and provide objective information to help Parliament keep watch on whether the federal government is meeting its commitments to protect the environment and promote sustainable development.

7. My mandate is to alert Parliament to significant environmental and sustainable development issues by providing timely and relevant information on the findings of my work. I observe how the federal government has carried out its policies and programs and, where appropriate, I recommend improvements. I am pleased that parliamentarians and the public show a growing awareness of my work.

8. My staff and I

9. This year I have chosen to look at whether the federal government has met selected environmental and sustainable development commitments. My review found a gap between the commitments made and the results achieved. This gap contributes to the environmental deficit that I reported on last year: I said that the federal government was not investing enough of its human and financial resources; its legislative, regulatory, and economic powers; or its political leadership to fulfil its sustainable development commitments.

Auditing for results

10. We conduct value-for-money audits that look at whether programs are working as intended and achieving the expected results. We investigate specific issues and report to Parliament our findings, conclusions, and recommendations. This year's audits are reported in Chapter 1, Managing the Safety and Accessibility of Pesticides, and Chapter 2, Road Transportation in Urban Areas: Accountability for Reducing Greenhouse Gases.

Strategies for a sustainable tomorrow

11. In addition to the value-for-money audits, we monitor and report on the progress that departments and agencies have achieved in implementing the commitments in their sustainable development strategies. The strategies are important tools that represent the objectives and action plans of departments and agencies for furthering sustainable development. Departments are required to update their strategies at least every three years; their second round of strategies was tabled in Parliament in February 2001.

12. A document that I released in March of this year, Making a Difference, sets out my expectations for the third round of sustainable development strategies, which federal departments and agencies are expected to finalize in December 2003.

13. I strongly believe that these strategies should drive federal actions and policies and produce concrete, measurable results. Parliament requires that federal departments and agencies prepare sustainable development strategies to help ensure that their actions today consider the needs of future generations—a concept reaffirmed by Canada at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

14. In last year's Report I recommended that, in preparation for the third round of sustainable development strategies, the Privy Council Office lead a renewal of the government's commitment to sustainable development; that it develop a clear and long-term image of sustainability for Canada; and that it provide guidance and direction to departments. The Privy Council Office in turn assigned this responsibility to a committee of deputy ministers and indicated that a federal-level sustainable development strategy was being developed. No timeline has been set to finalize this federal-level strategy. I am advised, however, that the deputy ministers are in accord with my expectations; they have provided departments with additional direction, including an outline for a guiding vision, government-wide priorities, and provisions for performance measurement and accountability.

15. This year I have taken a more targeted approach to monitoring and reporting on sustainable development strategies by examining specific commitments and the results achieved (see Chapter 3). I expect to continue this approach in the future.

Canadians can be their own environmental watchdogs

16. Parliament established the petitions process so citizens could raise questions and concerns about environmental and sustainable development matters that involve the federal government. The petitions process allows Canadians to receive timely answers from federal ministers. These petitions are not the traditional kind with thousands of signatures; they can be as simple as a letter from a Canadian citizen. The petitions process is a powerful tool that gives every Canadian the opportunity to be an environmental watchdog.

17. The number of petitions submitted annually has grown substantially in recent years. More important, Canadians are getting action on their concerns and are making a difference. As a result of recent petitions, federal departments and agencies have changed or clarified their policies and practices, undertaken site inspections, and launched new environmental projects.

18. As the guardian of the petitions process, I am committed to ensuring that the opportunities it affords are realized. In past responses to Canadians who have submitted petitions, departments have made a number of commitments. I am encouraged to see that for the most part they are taking their commitments seriously. (A catalogue of petitions and the responses received from ministers is available on our website.)

How my work makes a difference

19. My powers are those of persuasion and disclosure. Once my Report has been tabled in the House of Commons, it is public information. Parliamentary committees can question federal ministers and government officials about my findings and about how they will implement my recommendations. I also monitor departmental progress on my recommendations and I conduct selected follow-up audits of important environmental and sustainable development matters. In this way, the very presence of the Commissioner's Office and my reporting of significant environmental issues contribute toward sustainable development by motivating departments to live up to their commitments.

My priorities

20. My choices of subjects to audit reflect areas that I want to help change for the better and that I consider significant enough to warrant bringing them to Parliament's attention. I select audit subjects from

I also consult at least once each year with a panel of expert advisors who include representatives from industry and from environmental organizations; academics; and former senior government officials. The panel provides guidance for my work.

21. Over the coming years, I plan to conduct audits in the following areas:

22. I will continue to report annually on federal sustainable development strategies and on the results of the petitions process, including what federal departments have done to fulfil the commitments made in their responses to petitions.

23. Since fall 2001, on behalf of the Auditor General of Canada I have chaired the International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions (INTOSAI) Working Group on Environmental Auditing. The goal of the Working Group is to improve and promote environmental and sustainable development audit tools for use by auditors general around the world. Environmental and sustainable development issues are global, and I am excited by the powerful role legislative auditors can play in assisting legislative bodies to hold their governments to account for environmental performance.

24. The Working Group on Environmental Auditing is currently developing training materials for courses it plans on environmental auditing. It is exchanging information and preparing environmental guidance papers. (More information can be found at Currently, I am working with many of those audit offices to develop a strategy for a collective evaluation of our respective governments' efforts to act on the Plan of Implementation developed at the Johannesburg World Summit.

25. International commitments. In addition to national commitments, the federal government has made many international environmental and sustainable development commitments, including those at Rio de Janeiro, Kyoto, and Johannesburg. A key outcome of the Johannesburg World Summit was the Plan of Implementation, which I feel is of utmost importance to protecting our planet and building a better world.

26. The commitments made in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation are important for Canadians and all citizens of our planet. They include commitments related to water, oceans, forests, poverty reduction, waste, and the use of chemicals, to name but a few.

27. Last year, in response to the World Summit, I called for the federal government to produce its own concrete action plan addressing what it needs to do to meet its international commitments. Close to a year has passed since the conclusion of the World Summit, and the government has yet to develop such an action plan. The creation of a plan had begun in earnest under the leadership of the Earth Summit 2002 Canadian Secretariat (the body that co-ordinated Canada's preparations for the Johannesburg Summit). A draft short list of priority commitments from the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation was developed together with departmental assignments. But the Secretariat was dissolved on March 31, 2003 and the plan remains incomplete. A committee of deputy ministers has since assumed responsibility for overseeing the development of commitments Canada made at the Johannesburg World Summit. The deputy ministers expect to consider a proposal in their fall meeting. I look forward to seeing this plan and its implementation.

The continuing gap between environmental commitments and actions

28. The federal government has stated that it is managing its fiscal deficit to avoid leaving a burden of debt for future generations. The work of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development over the years points to another type of deficit—an environmental and sustainable development deficit. As my observations continue to indicate, a deficit in performance is partly caused by a gap between the commitments the federal government has made and the results it has achieved.

29. Federal commitments—including those in sustainable development strategies, policies, legislation, international agreements, regulations, and guidelines—deal with issues that fundamentally affect our way of life and therefore need active management. Previous reports of the Auditor General and the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development have noted environmental damage, health impacts, and billions of dollars in costs to Canadians due to inadequate or absence of action on protecting fish stocks, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, poor air and water quality, protection of biodiversity, and the management of toxic substances. Over the coming years I will continue to monitor whether results-based action plans and dedicated resources are being used to reduce the gap between commitments, actions and results.

30. In its 2003 Budget, the federal government made one of its largest commitments to the environment and sustainable development in years—$3 billion over the next five years. Many key areas where the government proposes to spend this money—climate change, air and water quality, contaminated sites on federal lands, management of toxic substances, and species at risk—are subjects that my predecessor and I have audited in the last few years. The government has also set aside funds for the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation and for national parks.

31. This year's Report examines several issues that all highlight to varying degrees the gap between commitments and action. The pesticides chapter raises serious questions about the federal government's failure to keep commitments it made to ensure that pesticides are safe, while allowing for access to them where required. The chapter on urban road transportation puts the government on notice that it will need to significantly improve the way it measures the effects of its programs in order to demonstrate that it is meeting Canada's Kyoto target. The sustainable development chapter looks at federal commitments that impact our communities, employment opportunities, and industries.

32. This Report, the seventh annual Report of the Commissioner, demonstrates the evolution of our audit approaches to sustainable development. I have followed up on ministerial responses to environmental petitions to determine whether commitments made have been translated into commitments met. And I have taken a more focussed look at selected departments' sustainable development commitments to provide a more in-depth picture of the progress being made.

Managing the safety and accessibility of pesticides

33. Chapter 1 examines the extent to which the federal government is effectively managing key aspects of pesticide use in Canada. Pesticide use affects virtually all Canadians. By December 2002, there were 5,622 pest control products registered for use in Canada. Pesticides are used to produce and preserve the food we eat. They are included in paints to stop fungal growth, and are used to control pests—in managing the spread of the West Nile virus, for example. The nature of pesticides makes them a concern. They are designed to be toxic to pests and they are released into the environment deliberately. It is important that Parliament know how the federal government is managing the risks that pesticide use presents, and this is why we have chosen to examine aspects of pesticides management for the fourth time in 15 years.

34. The Pest Management Regulatory Agency of Health Canada is responsible for protecting human health and the environment by minimizing the risks associated with pest control products, while allowing for access to pest management tools. I am troubled that the federal government has been very slow to meet the commitments it has set for itself to manage pesticides and the associated health and environmental risks.

35. Timely evaluations of new pesticides could result in potentially safer products on the market. Despite significant improvements in the rigour and timeliness of the submission process, the Agency does not consistently meet its targets for timely evaluation of new pesticides. Many new pesticides have been granted temporary registration pending the submission of additional studies. Of the new pesticide registrations in 2001-02, 58 percent were temporary. Given that the risks to health and the environment have not been fully evaluated, I am concerned about the frequent and repeated use of temporary registrations.

36. Health and environmental standards relating to pesticide use have risen, but the progress made in re-evaluating older, widely used pesticides has been very slow. All of the pesticides that the government has fully re-evaluated so far have been removed from the market or have had greater restrictions placed on their use because some uses posed significant health and environmental risks. Other re-evaluations (of selected pesticides used on lawn and turf, for example) are behind schedule. Pesticides slated for re-evaluation remain on the market, and it is likely that some of them do not meet today's standards.

37. Despite its commitment to ensure that pest control products are used legally and according to label instructions, the Agency has only limited and unreliable information about the extent to which users are complying with label instructions. A lack of compliance could have environmental impacts and create unnecessary health risks for those exposed to these products.

38. In 1994, the federal government committed to setting up a database on pesticide use. My predecessor and I criticized the government in 1999 and 2002 for not acting on this commitment, and it still has not done so. In the absence of up-to-date information, the government relies on a variety of incomplete and dated information. As I reported in 2002, Canada remains one of the few member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that lack a database on pesticide use or sales. Information about the amounts of pesticides being used is needed to make good decisions about risks to health, safety, and the environment.

39. Based on my observations, the federal government is not managing pesticides effectively. There are weaknesses in many areas that raise serious questions about the overall management of the health and environmental risks associated with pesticides. The government is not meeting its responsibility to ensure that all pesticides in use meet current standards. Urgent corrective action is needed.

Road transportation in urban areas: accountability for reducing greenhouse gases

40. Chapter 2 examined whether there were appropriate accountability frameworks in place for selected federal programs associated with road transportation in urban areas. Looking forward, these frameworks are crucial for the federal government to be able to report on its progress toward meeting its Kyoto commitment.

41. In December 1997, Canada and 160 other countries negotiated the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Five years later, Canada ratified the Kyoto Protocol. The Protocol commits Canada to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions over the period 2008 to 2012 to 6 percent below 1990 levels—Canada's Kyoto target.

42. To help in this effort, the federal government issued its Action Plan 2000 on Climate Change (October 2000) and its Climate Change Plan for Canada (November 2002). It expects that these two plans together will take Canada about three quarters of the way toward its Kyoto target. The Climate Change Plan outlines a number of current and potential actions that could help Canada address the remaining gap.

43. The federal government expects every government, region, sector, and Canadian to do their share to meet Canada's Kyoto target. It has also indicated that the transportation sector will be expected to assume its share of responsibility for meeting the target. To date, the government has chosen to address greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector using a limited number of policy instruments. It has relied on voluntary measures and spending programs focussed mainly on research and development, demonstration, and public education and awareness.

44. The transportation sector is the single largest source of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 26 percent of total emissions in 2001. More than 70 percent of emissions in that sector are generated by road transportation. From 1990 to 2001, greenhouse gas emissions by the transportation sector rose by 22 percent, and emissions by the road transportation sector alone rose by 25 percent. Two thirds of these emissions occur in urban areas, where the majority of Canadians live.

45. Action Plan 2000 and the Climate Change Plan for Canada identify nine actions related to the transportation sector (described in Chapter 2 of this Report, Appendix A) that either build on existing federal government measures or are new measures. All of these actions are expected to be delivered through some form of partnership between the federal government and other levels of government or other stakeholders, or both. The federal government estimates that these actions will account for about 12 percent of the total anticipated reductions in Canada's greenhouse gas emissions.

46. We examined one of the nine actions—the Canadian Transportation Fuel Cell Alliance program, for which Natural Resources Canada is the lead department. (We did not audit the eight other actions because at the time of our examination, they were in the early stages of implementation or did not have a strong focus on urban road transportation.) For the transportation sector as well as other sectors of the Canadian economy, hydrogen and fuel cells potentially have many significant benefits—economic, environmental, and social. However, these benefits depend on both the primary source of fuel and the technology used to produce the hydrogen. Significant challenges remain, including the need to develop both an infrastructure and uniform industry codes and standards.

47. The federal government has invested or committed over $100 million to hydrogen fuel cells without any national strategy to ensure that Canadians would get the maximum benefits for the investment. In my view, the federal government needs to decide what role it will play in addressing the hydrogen and fuel cell challenges and, if appropriate, what long-term commitments are necessary.

48. Given Transport Canada's overall mandate in the transportation sector, we also examined its Moving On Sustainable Transportation program and its Intelligent Transportation Systems initiative. Both were intended to have an impact on road transportation in urban areas and to lead to reductions in Canada's greenhouse gas emissions.

49. All three programs have shortcomings that may prevent them from achieving their long-term expected results. If these shortcomings are not corrected, it will be difficult for the federal government to know the contribution these programs are making to their stated outcomes, which include reducing Canada's greenhouse gas emissions.

50. In June 2003, the federal government tabled in Parliament its first comprehensive report on the Government of Canada's investment in climate change from 1997 to 2002. My predecessor had recommended in his 1998 Report (Chapter 3, Responding to Climate Change—Time to Rethink Canada's Implementation Strategy, paragraph 3.162) that the federal government produce such a report. In its June 2003 report, the government recognizes that achievements are presented mainly as outputs and activities. It also indicates that efforts will be made to state the extent to which these outputs and activities contribute toward meeting Canada's climate change commitments. In my view, such information will be crucial to assist Parliament in its oversight of Canada's response to climate change.

51. The ultimate objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level where human actions would not significantly interfere with the climate system. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that this would require greenhouse gas emissions to be cut by more than half by the end of the 21st century. The Kyoto Protocol is a first step toward that objective.

Sustainable development strategies

52. Chapter 3 reports on selected sustainable development objectives set by Infrastructure Canada, Industry Canada, Human Resources Development Canada, and Environment Canada. Case studies in the chapter show that sustainable development involves important economic, social, and environmental issues that affect Canadians.

53. I continue to notice varying degrees of progress and effort directed toward sustainable development strategy objectives. In my view, stronger central direction and leadership would accelerate Canada's progress in this area.

54. The government committed to improving the environment by targeting at least 47 percent of the $2 billion Infrastructure Canada Program to projects that improve the quality of the environment. The government could not provide evidence to demonstrate how all the projects deemed to be "green" have environmental benefits; as a result, the program is at risk of not being able to meet its stated environmental goal. I believe that when it accounts for and reports on the overall environmental benefits and performance of the Program, Infrastructure Canada needs to demonstrate clearly the environmental benefits associated with the projects it categorizes as green.

55. Industry Canada made commitments to get companies to reduce pollution and use natural resources more wisely in producing goods and providing services to consumers. It has undertaken a significant amount of work and devoted resources to fulfilling this commitment. However, it needs to improve how it measures and reports on the impact its actions are having on Canadian industry.

56. Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) committed to explore, investigate, and assess issues such as the potential impact of the Kyoto Protocol on Canadian jobs and green employment. I have noted that the public has received conflicting messages about how Kyoto will affect our economy, and I am disappointed at the slow pace of HRDC's progress on its commitment. The decision to ratify Kyoto was a major decision. By not fulfilling its commitment in a timely way, HRDC missed an opportunity to inform Canadians about important employment issues surrounding Kyoto. Without basic information, HRDC will be unable to make the necessary adjustments in its employment and training programs—programs designed to serve Canadians and give them the tools to do their best in today's and tomorrow's economy.

57. Many federal departments are involved in delivering programs at the local level. Environment Canada committed to getting those departments to work together. One Environment Canada target was to complete a federal framework that would spell out what the government is trying to achieve and how to get departments to work together to make communities more sustainable. This framework has the potential to be a roadmap to how the federal government makes our communities better places to live. Work on this framework has been delayed, and there is no firm deadline set for its completion.

Environmental petitions

58. Petitions (see Chapter 4) cover a wide range of local, regional, national, and international concerns and have been received from all over the country. Many continue to come from individuals and local groups concerned about local environmental issues that affect them and their communities.

59. New issues have emerged in this year's petitions. The list of environmental issues covered by petitions expanded this year to include endangered species, contaminated federal lands and harbours (including former military training sites), the environment and trade, the effects of genetically engineered crops on soil, radioactive waste, invasive species, nuclear liability, and the transboundary movement of hazardous waste.

60. This year, I have begun to follow up on some of those commitments and have audited four commitments made by departments in response to previous petitions. Departmental action on fulfilling commitments was mixed. However, in all cases examined, petitioners succeeded in getting some level of action from the federal government on issues that concern them.

61. The federal government declared trichloroethylene a toxic substance a decade ago, but federal actions were only recently completed. Although trichloroethylene (TCE) was declared a decade ago to be toxic and probably carcinogenic to humans, Environment Canada only recently finalized control measures for this substance. I highlighted this long delay in my 2002 Report (Chapter 1, Toxic Substances Revisited, Exhibit 1.5). The Department began to develop these regulations in 1997. In its February 2001 response to Petition No. 25, Environment Canada committed to completing the draft regulations and it set a target of mid-2001. While it did succeed in introducing draft regulations, it did so in December 2002 after a further 16-month delay. The final regulations came into force on 24 July 2003.

62. The Canadian Drinking Water Quality Guideline for TCE was established in 1987. It was flagged for review in 1993. However, it was not until May 2000 that Health Canada recommended that the reassessment for TCE begin as soon as possible. The review finally began in earnest in the spring of 2002 and it is now complete (as promised by Health Canada in its response to Petition No. 25). As a result of the review, Health Canada is recommending that the TCE guideline be more stringent. The Department must now work with the provinces and territories to make any final changes to the guideline. I encourage Health Canada to complete this as quickly as possible.

63. While I appreciate the complexity of putting in place new regulations and guidelines, I am troubled that actions to protect human health and the environment take so long.

64. The Canadian International Development Agency has committed to enhance public access to environmental assessments, but only for certain types of projects. In response to Petition No. 41B, the Agency decided to enhance public access to the environmental assessments it funds for hydro dam projects—only one of various types of infrastructure projects in which CIDA is involved. In what I consider a good suggestion, an internal task force in CIDA recommended that the Agency enhance such access to environmental studies for other types of projects as well.


65. Making commitments to the environment and sustainable development is important; however, meeting them is even more important. As a matter of credibility, Canadians expect the federal government to meet its commitments. The environmental deficit that I referred to in last year's Report will continue to grow unless the government reduces the gap between its commitments and its actions. To reduce the deficit, the federal government must not only live up to its commitments but also be able to measure and report what its actions are achieving. Failure to address commitments will pass an increasing burden to future generations.

66. Our audit work this year has found that the federal government needs to

67. I strongly encourage Canadians to continue to be their own environmental watchdog, to get involved and use the petitions process to help make a difference. I look forward to the continuing success of the petitions process.

68. Good intentions. When Canadians invest for tomorrow, they set goals for what they want to achieve and they receive regular statements on the progress of their investments. Should they not expect the same of their government as it invests their money in the environment and sustainable development? I continue to encourage the government to produce such statements so that Parliament and Canadians will be able to know what progress the government is making toward eliminating the environmental deficit.