Commissioner’s Report Critical of Canada’s Climate Change Efforts

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On Oct. 4, 2011, Scott Vaughan, the federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, tabled his annual report in the House of Commons. Under the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, the government is required to prepare annual climate change plans and the Commissioner is required to review them. This report focuses on two issues: climate change and the Alberta oil sands.  Here’s a look at what the report has to say about these two areas.

THE REPORT

Climate Change: The Commissioner’s report says that Canada isn’t on track to meet its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce GHG emissions. In fact, it’s unclear whether the government will even be able to achieve its more modest goal, arising out of the Copenhagen Accord, of reducing GHGs by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020. The 2010 National Inventory Report, which provides information on Canada’s levels of GHG emissions, indicated that the country’s emissions totalled 734 million tonnes in 2008—which is 31% more than the Kyoto target of 558.4 million tonnes.

And since the government released its first climate change plan in 2007, it has significantly lowered its target for reducing GHG emissions. For example, the expected emission reductions have dropped from 282 million tonnes in the first plan to 28 million tonnes in 2010, a drop of approximately 90%. The report adds that, “despite allocations of more than $9 billion, the government has yet to establish the management systems and tools needed to achieve, measure, and report on greenhouse gas emission reductions.”

Oil Sands: The report is also critical of what the government has done to understand the cumulative effects of oils sands projects in Alberta. It claims that environmental assessments of such projects under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act have been done on the basis of incomplete information due to “insufficient or inadequate environmental monitoring systems.” For example, for more than 10 years, Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada have warned that key environmental information regarding the effects of oil sands projects has been missing, making it impossible to understand the combined impact of projects in the lower Athabasca region and the impact on ecosystems that are farther away, including the wider Mackenzie Basin of the Northwest Territories. Without this information, it’s impossible to track environmental changes over time.

The report found that, despite these repeated warnings of gaps in environmental information, the government did little for almost a decade to close many of those key information gaps. And as a result, decisions about oil sands projects have been based on incomplete, poor or non-existent environmental information that has, in turn, led to poorly informed decisions. It does note, however, that the government has recently taken a “good first step” towards closing these gaps, such as by convening an expert Oil Sands Advisory Panel to examine the current state of environmental monitoring in the region and developing a detailed plan for improving the system.

ANALYSIS

On Dec. 7, 2011, Canada’s Environment Minister stated at the COP17 that “for Canada, the Kyoto Protocol is not where the solution lies….[W]e will not take on a second commitment under the Kyoto Protocol.” So this report is likely to be the last we see from the Commissioner. But the federal government would be remiss if it ignored the report’s observations and recommendations. For example, the Commissioner provides valuable, objective insight into some of the problems with Canada’s current approach to climate change. And many of the recommendations, such as the development and implementation of a quality assurance and control system for reporting actual GHG emission reductions (measured or estimated against a baseline) and support of future climate change plans by an appropriate management accountability and reporting framework, seem both reasonable and appropriate.