Back to top

Fiddling on the Climate Change File

While the story of Nero fiddling while Rome burned is a popular legend, the Canadian federal government’s lack of action on climate change has been established as truth.

In an outspoken report tabled Tuesday (October 3) in the House of Commons, Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Julie Gelfand said the government is stuck in a “seemingly endless planning mode,” keeps moving a greenhouse gas reduction target farther into the future, and needs to show stronger federal leadership on the issue of climate change.

“Since 1992, the government has repeatedly promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to the impacts of climate change, and support clean energy technology,” Gelfand wrote in her Commissioner’s Perspective.

“However, since then, Canada has missed two separate emission reduction targets and is likely to miss the 2020 target as well; in fact, emissions have increased by over 15 percent.”

Since the 1990s, the federal government has had a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the impacts of climate change. To meet Canada’s most recent commitment under the 2015 Paris Agreement, Canada must reduce its emissions to 523 megatonnes by 2030. In 2015, Canada’s emissions were 722 megatonnes.

The government’s latest plan – the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change – was released in December 2016 and endorsed by most provinces, except Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Gelfand said previous plans had failed to produce concrete results.

“It’s time for change,” she wrote. “The federal government needs to start doing the hard work to turn this latest broad framework into tangible and measurable actions.”

The Pan-Canadian Framework has been criticized as inadequate by a number of environmental organizations, including Environmental Defence which called it “no big deal.”

“No Canadian government to date has completed and implemented a climate change plan,” Dale Marshall, National Program Manager for Environmental Defence wrote in a 2016 blog. “And there has never been a climate plan developed with widespread input and buy-in from the provinces and territories.”

Hard work left undone

The commissioner submitted five reports to parliamentarians showing that in two essential areas – reducing greenhouse gases and adapting to the impacts of climate change – the federal government has yet to do much of the hard work that is required to bring about this fundamental shift.

“For example, instead of developing a detailed action plan to reach the 2020 target for reducing emissions, the government changed its focus to the 2030 target,” Gelfand said. “In addition, the government did not pursue a number of greenhouse gas regulations, thereby losing opportunities to achieve real reductions in emissions.”

In report number one, entitled Progress on Reducing Greenhouse Gases, Gelfand’s auditors “concluded that Environment and Climate Change Canada, with support from other government departments and agencies, did not make progress toward meeting Canada’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Department did not implement measures that would be sufficient to reach the 2020 target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it shifted its focus to the 2030 target.”

This report also found that Environment and Climate Change Canada “did not clearly indicate how it would measure, monitor, and report on the provincial and territorial contributions to meet Canada’s 2030 emission target.”

Departments fail to assess risk

Report number two – Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change – contained two damning conclusions:

(1) “We concluded that Environment and Climate Change Canada, in collaboration with other federal partners, did not provide adequate leadership to advance the federal government’s adaptation to climate change impacts. Although the Federal Adaptation Policy Framework and the recent Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change provided a foundation, there was no action plan nor clear direction to ensure that the federal government would integrate climate change considerations into its own programs, policies, and operations.”

(2) “Most of the federal departments and agencies we examined did not take appropriate measures to adapt to climate change impacts by assessing and managing the climate change risks to their programs, policies, assets, and operations. As a result, the federal government could not demonstrate that it was making progress in adapting to a changing climate. Stronger federal leadership is needed.”

When it comes to funding clean energy projects, Gelfand found the government inadequately measured, tracked, and reported on a number of the selected projects that her department examined.

In report number three – Funding Clean Energy Technologies – Gelfand’s auditors had harsh words for both Natural Resources Canada and Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC).

Proponents receiving funding from these departments are required to submit annual reports that included annual estimates of greenhouse gas emission reductions after project completion.

“We found that both Natural Resources Canada and Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) had difficulty obtaining these post-completion reports for many of the projects we reviewed,” said Gelfand’s auditors in their findings. “In some cases, there was little incentive for companies to report after receiving all the funding. For SDTC, most of the project reports we expected to find were missing. For Natural Resources Canada, reports were missing for a quarter of the companies funded.”

Climate change risks left unassessed

While the federal government has committed to sustainable development, Gelfand found a great deal lacking here as well.

In 1990, Cabinet issued the Cabinet Directive on the Environmental Assessment of Policy, Plan and Program Proposals. The directive, supported by guidelines, requires federal departments and agencies to consider environmental concerns early in the planning of policy, plan, and program proposals before making irreversible decisions.

The Federal Sustainable Development Act requires the federal government to develop a strategy intended to make environmental decision making more transparent and accountable to Parliament.

In the 2010–2013 Federal Sustainable Development Strategy, tabled in Parliament in 2010, ministers and Cabinet committed to strengthen the application of strategic environmental assessment by considering the government’s environmental goals when pursuing social and economic goals. That same year, guidelines supporting the Cabinet directive were updated to indicate that each minister must ensure that departmental policies, plans, and programs are consistent with the government’s broad environmental objectives and sustainable development goals, as laid out in the federal strategy.

Was any progress made after all these swell-sounding initiatives? Here’s what Gelfand found in report number four – Departmental Progress in Implementing Sustainable Development Strategies:

  • “Overall, we found that the departments and agencies we examined did not apply the Cabinet directive to almost 80 percent of their proposals. Only the Public Health Agency of Canada prepared preliminary assessments for all proposals submitted to Cabinet and for almost all proposals submitted to its Minister.”
  • “We found that five of the six departments and agencies we examined did not apply the strategic environmental assessment process to any of the proposals they submitted to their ministers, as required by the Cabinet directive. We found that the Public Health Agency of Canada conducted the required assessments for almost all the proposals it submitted to its Minister.”
  • “We also found that departments and agencies applied the Cabinet directive to only 71 (40 percent) of the 176 policy, plan, and program proposals submitted for approval to Cabinet.”

Gelfand’s audit is based on the period June 2010 to June 2017, so the majority of the inertia on climate change can be blamed on the Stephen Harper government. But Justin Trudeau supposedly has made climate change an urgent issue since his election in October 2015.

Gelfand’s reports leave his government with a lot of egg on its face.

Time to stop fiddling

Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna told CBC News the government “wholeheartedly agrees” more must be done. "Just as the commissioner recommends, we're working every day to turn our commitments into actions," she said.

Yet McKenna’s own ministry is one of 14 departments and agencies that have taken “little or no action” to fully assess climate change risks and devise plans to deal with them. Only five of the 19 departments audited had done so.

Gelfand’s audit team says two departments – Public Services and Procurement Canada, and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada – “did not include climate change considerations in their corporate risk management documents at all, nor did they demonstrate having assessed such risks.”

The Trudeau government has also sustained support for projects like Site C, the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, the Keystone XL pipeline, continued production in the Alberta oil sands, and as Gelfand found, has made a “disconcerting lack of real results” on its 2009 international commitment to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.

The government cannot have it both ways; it cannot continue to prop up the fossil fuel sector and still make progress in reducing greenhouse gases. The oil and gas sector (26 percent) and transportation (24 percent) were identified as responsible for half of Canada’s GHG emissions in 2015.

It is time for us citizens to light a fire under the feet of our Parliamentarians before disruptive climate change sets Canada ablaze.

Enough fiddling – walk the talk and take real action.

Michael Jessen is an ecowriter and energy consultant. He lives at Longbeach near Nelson, BC. He can be reached by email at zerowaste@shaw.ca