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2008 March Status Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development The Commissioner's Perspective—2008

2008 March Status Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development

The Commissioner's Perspective—2008

Introduction

What do we cover in this report?

What did we find?

What needs to change?

Conclusion

Introduction

Over the past decade, commissioners of the Environment and Sustainable Development have reported on more than 70 audits and studies to Parliament. These reports have examined how well government departments and agencies have managed environment and sustainable development issues.

For this report, we have done something a bit different. We have followed up on selected recommendations and findings from prior reports to determine if satisfactory progress has been made in addressing them. In doing so, we consider the time elapsed since our original report and the complexity and degree of difficulty of remedial action by government.

Status reports focus attention on significant recommendations and findings until they have been addressed and resolved. As such, they provide relevant information to Parliament for use by various standing committees in holding departments and agencies to account for actions taken and planned.

What do we cover in this report?

The recommendations and findings that we selected for follow up are those that we consider to be significant and relevant to parliamentary oversight and scrutiny, both today and in the coming years. They cover a broad range of topics, including chemicals management, the protection of species at risk and their habitats, the control of aquatic invasive species such as zebra mussels, the restoration of heavily polluted areas of concern in the Great Lakes, the use of management tools designed to get departments and agencies to anticipate and minimize future environmental problems, and actions taken in response to environmental petitions.

The recommendations and findings included in this Status Report were addressed to a number of government administrations over the past decade or so and were included in commissioners' reports to a number of parliaments over that time. With few exceptions, the government agreed with our recommendations and made commitments to take action.

What did we find?

We found mixed progress by departments and agencies in addressing and resolving the recommendations and findings included in this Status Report. Of the fourteen chapters in the report, five show satisfactory progress and nine show unsatisfactory progress. Where satisfactory progress was made, four success factors were present—realistic objectives, strong commitment at senior levels, clear direction, and adequate resources. Where progress was unsatisfactory, some or all of these factors were absent.

We report satisfactory progress in addressing recommendations and findings in our three chapters on chemicals management, our chapter on insurance for nuclear operators, and our chapter on military dumpsites. In each of these five chapters, the success factors were present. For example, Chapter 3 notes that in dealing with abandoned mines in the North, the government identified the major ones, created a central management capability to work with individual departments and agencies, established a clear work plan with timelines, and provided significant funding.

Unfortunately, we report unsatisfactory progress in addressing recommendations and findings on the other topics covered in this Status Report. In each case, we observed lack of commitment at senior levels, and often inadequate funding. Our chapters dealing with protection of species at risk and their habitat, control of aquatic invasive species, and the restoration of heavily polluted areas of concern in the Great Lakes provide ample evidence of this.

Of particular concern is the poor performance by departments and agencies in conducting strategic environmental assessments when developing policy and program proposals. These assessments are required when proposals that are submitted to Cabinet have an environmental impact. Public reporting is required whenever assessments are done. This is similar to the situation we found last October when examining sustainable development strategies where performance was also poor. Once again, the lack of commitment at senior levels is a root cause of these problems. Strategic environmental assessments and sustainable development strategies need to be revitalized on a priority basis in order to help the government address environmental issues of the past, avoid similar issues in the future, and achieve sustainable development over the longer term.

What needs to change?

The many environmental challenges faced by the government cannot all be addressed at the same time with the same intensity. In addition to the topics covered in this Status Report, the government is facing other environmental challenges—including climate change, the theme of the Commissioner's 2006 Report. It will be important for the government to develop clear and realistic overall objectives that are specific and measurable, with targets and milestones, in order to ensure that its many environmental challenges are addressed in a practical and coordinated manner by departments and agencies. Once an overall plan is in place, it needs to be brought to life by establishing clear and realistic department objectives, strong commitment at senior levels, clear direction, and adequate funding.

But as important as it is to address environmental challenges that exist today, it is equally important to anticipate new challenges and new opportunities that may arise tomorrow. Doing this would help the government get ahead of the curve and develop policies and programs to mitigate the challenges and exploit the opportunities. Strategic environmental assessments and sustainable development strategies are management tools put in place to get departments and agencies to do this. Unfortunately, both tools are broken; they need to be fixed.

Conclusion

We hope that this Status Report provides relevant information to Parliament for use by its standing committees in holding departments and agencies to account for the quality of their management of environment and sustainable development issues. As always, we would be pleased to help these committees in any way we can as they carry out this important work on behalf of all Canadians.