Lack of leadership hinders progress on environmental issues says Environment Commissioner

“Our report points to some common and long-standing
weaknesses in the way the government has been managing
environmental issues, from a lack of critical data to inadequate
information about key environmental threats, to a lack of plans to
tackle those threats.” Commissioner of the Environment and
Sustainable Development Scott Vaughan.

The 2010 Fall
Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable
Development published this week says the federal government has not
shown effective and sustained leadership in a number of key
environmental and climate change areas.

Environment and Sustainable Development Commissioner Scott
Vaughan noted in the foreword to his comprehensive audit that the
federal government lacks an overarching strategy that identifies
clear, concrete actions supported by coordination among federal

Nor has the government established clear priorities or taken
concrete action to deal with the anticipated climate change
effects, including severe storms in the Atlantic region, extreme
heat through Central Canada and extended drought on the

“The concerns we have raised in this report are hardly new”,
said the Commissioner. “About 20 years ago, the federal government
acknowledged that the impacts of climate change would pose
significant, long-term challenges throughout Canada, from more
frequent and severe storms in Atlantic Canada to changes in the
amount of rain available to farmers. And today, the federal
government still lacks an overarching federal strategy that
identifies clear, concrete actions supported by coordination among
federal departments.”

He was particularly critical of the government’s inability to
demonstrate value for money in many of its environmental spending

“Critical gaps remain in the government’s environmental
information that hinder both its capacity to inform Canadians about
key environmental conditions, and its ability to know if the
billions of dollars it spends each year on environmental protection
are making a difference,” says the report.

The report notes that five federal departments (Environment
Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Health Canada, Indian and
Northern Affairs Canada and Natural Resources Canada) had conducted
environmental risk assessments related to the potential effects of
climate change.  But these studies have been undertaken in a
piecemeal and uncoordinated fashion, said the Commissioner.

“We found limited examples where policies and plans were
adjusted or created to address risks arising from climate

The report recommends Environment Canada take the lead in a
coordinating a government-wide response to climate change. This
would include the sharing of tools and best practices “to improve
how the government integrates climate-risk identification,
assessment and adaptation into its decision making and

The report cited the lack of forward looking planning on many
key environmental programs, noting in particular that funding under
the Clean Air Agenda expires in about three months but the
government appears not to have any plans for further support after
that date.

“Sustained leadership begins by knowing
what the major environmental problems are, setting out a concrete
plan with sufficient resources to tackle them consistently over
time, and having the management systems needed to direct the work
and monitor the achievement of those goals.” Commissioner of the
Environment and Sustainable Development, Scott

One area that drew particular comment by the Commissioner dealt
with Canada’s response capabilities in dealing with major marine
oil spills.

“Canada still does not have a national plan to ensure the
federal government is ready to respond to major incidents involving
spills from vessels transporting all kinds of hazardous and noxious
substances,” says the report.

In particular, the Canadian Coast Guard has “unclear,
incomplete, and unreliable data about oil spill responses, and
cannot accurately determine the actual size of spills, how many
spills required onsite responses, how many spills required the use
of Canadian Coast Guard equipment, and the results of the cleanup

The Commissioner singled out Environment Canada for its failings
with respect to water quality and management. “Environment Canada
has been running the federal water quantity and water quality
monitoring programs for about 40 years without knowing who - if
anyone - is monitoring the quality of fresh water on federal

In a case study related to Canada’s oil sands, the
Commissioner’s report notes studies have long suggested that oil
sands mining has environmental impacts as a result of freshwater
use and pollutant releases, and although the first commercial oil
sands production began in 1967, Environment Canada had only
recently identified the oil sands region as a priority ecosystem
and hotspot for further assessment and intervention. Little or no
water quality monitoring has been undertaken to date.

“Consequently, the department’s Fresh Water Quality Monitoring
program has no baseline measures or long-term data to track changes
in water quality and aquatic ecosystem health in the river
associated with oil sands development,” said the report. In
addition, when it comes to water quantity, the department has not
determined whether it currently has an adequate number of stations
to monitor water flow related to oil sands development.

The report also notes that Environment Canada has water quality
monitoring stations on only 12 of some 3,000 First Nation

In summing up his href=””
target=”_blank”>perspective Commissioner Vaughan said, “The
chapters in this report highlight several areas where,
unfortunately, the federal government is not doing what it said it
would do to protect the environment and move toward sustainable
development. There is little in our findings to offset a
discouraging picture, as most suggest underlying problems in how
these federal programs are being managed.”

“In short, said the Commissioner, the two fundamental problems
we identified are a lack of effective and sustained leadership,
especially when responsibilities are shared, and inadequate

John Baird, Canada’s Minister of Environment, who is in Cancun
this week at the United Nations Climate Change meeting, thanked the
Commissioner for his important work and his latest report, and
assured Canadians that that the government was taking action and
delivering on its environmental priorities.

He cited work underway to help the Canadian Coast Guard improve
its capacity to respond to critical incidents; concrete and
measurable action taken to implement a strong and comprehensive
approach to protect Canada’s waters; work underway to develop a
Government-wide climate adaptation framework; improvements on
measuring atmospheric hazards and extremes; and the development and
improvement of climate-related infrastructure plans and codes in

He also cited continuing efforts towards harmonizing Canada’s
climate regime with that of the United States, which has been a key
pillar of the federal government’s emissions reduction strategy for
the last two years.

In his statement to the media Commissioner Vaughan noted “Over
the years, the government has made repeated commitments to take the
lead in protecting the environment and moving toward sustainable
development. Sustained leadership is necessary to successfully
address these weaknesses that we have reported time and time

The Commissioner’s full report and supporting media statements
are available href=””

You can return to the main Market News page, or press the Back button on your browser.