Canada's climate change goals falling short

The federal government doesn't have a good understanding of how the oilsands in Alberta are affecting the environment, and it's not on track to hit greenhouse gas emission targets, according to the environment commissioner.
Environment commissioner Scott Vaughan tabled his 2011 report in Parliament Tuesday that cast doubt on whether the government will meet its greenhouse gas emission targets. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The federal government needs to get its act together and co-ordinate its climate change programs, Parliament's environment watchdog said Tuesday, as he cast doubt on whether Canada will meet its various emission reduction targets.

Scott Vaughan, commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, tabled his 2011 report that looked at climate change plans under the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act and at the government's monitoring of the environmental impact of oilsands development in northern Alberta.

Vaughan said it's no surprise that Ottawa is off-track when it comes to Kyoto targets, but he added the government has made commitments in other agreements and plans — including the Copenhagen accord and its own Federal Sustainable Development Strategy. Keeping those commitments is highly in doubt because there are significant weaknesses in the government's plans, said Vaughan.

"I think it's next to impossible that Canada is going to be able to reach its Kyoto target, that's a given. The gap is so wide now, but I think what we've said as well is the basic problems that we've seen now, and the overall federal-wide co-ordinaton of these climate change programs really needs to get its act together," Vaughan said at a news conference in Ottawa.

"And if they don't, then we have some doubts on whether or not they are going to be able to meet any target."

Kyoto, a legally-binding agreement, laid out a target of Canada reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to an average of six per cent below the 1990 level by 2012 and the Copenhagen accord commits Canada to reducing emissions by 17 per cent below its 2005 level by 2020.

Vaughan said the government's current climate change plan lacks the "tools and management systems needed to achieve, measure and report emission reductions." The plan is made up of at least 35 different programs and they are "disjointed, confused, non-transparent," he said.

He also raised an alarm bell about the government consistently lowering its greenhouse gas emission targets since 2007. Vaughan's report says the expected emission reductions have dropped from 282 million tonnes in its first plan to 28 million tonnes in its most recent one, a drop of about 90 per cent.

In the government's plans between 2007 and 2009, the biggest amount of expected emission reductions was to come from the Regulatory Framework for Industrial Greenhouse Gas Emissions — and that program is not in the 2010 plan, Vaughan notes.

At a time when the government is moving to tighten its belt and slash spending to erase the deficit, the environment commissioner also says that $9 billion was allocated to climate change programs in the 2010 plan and that the government doesn't have a good system in place to track that spending.

Ottawa hasn't set out clear roles and responsibilities or quality assurance systems for reporting on the greenhouse gas emission reductions achieved, Vaughan said.

'Disjointed' programs

Vaughan said the government still needs to build to an overall strategy to "co-ordinate efficient and effective spending of billions of dollars."

His audit recommends that Environment Canada draw all of its "disjointed" programs together and present one clear budget so MPs know how much money has been allocated and how much was spent.

"Without that information, it's impossible to figure out what's the value for money for these programs. That's our recommendation, Environment Canada rejected it," said Vaughan. "They said that there's other systems that they will use to present that information."

Information gaps have been an ongoing problem, Vaughan said, while in the other chapter of his report he writes the federal government doesn't have a good understanding of how the oilsands in Alberta are affecting the environment.

Vaughan said decisions about oilsands development projects have been based on "incomplete, poor or non-existent environmental information."

Vaughan's audit found that there is a lack of basic information on conditions in the ecosystems that surround Alberta's oilsands and "inadequate environmental monitoring systems." As a result, the federal government's understanding of how conditions are changing there has been hampered, Vaughan reports.

"When there are several development projects in the same region, it's important to understand their combined impacts on the environment and how to minimize them," Vaughan said. "Failure to prevent environmental impacts from the start can lead to significant problems down the road."

The chapter on northern Alberta's oilsands comes as the United States prepares to make a major decision on TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL pipeline project. The proposed pipeline would carry oil from Alberta to Texas and it has prompted numerous protests in recent weeks by environmentalists and other activists on both sides of the border who are opposed to the project. The U.S. government will be deciding this fall whether to allow the project, which Canada's federal government fully supports.

The lack of a proper monitoring system for the environmental impact of the oilsands has been highlighted before and many warnings have been issued about the information gaps. An expert panel convened by the federal government last year concluded that past efforts to monitor the environmental effects of oilsands production had failed and that Canada did not have a world-class system in place. Ottawa responded to the report in March with a two-phase plan to monitor air and water quality and other conditions and Vaughan applauded the government for setting out a detailed plan to fix the deficiencies in monitoring.

He says that if it is implemented it will be credible and robust and he hopes it will be applied to other regions that have been deemed "ecological hotspots" such as the Bay of Fundy, the North and the Great Lakes region.

Environment Minister Peter Kent said the government is committed to the responsible development of the oilsands and that he is glad that Vaughan recognized its "world-class" plan.

He also said in a statement that Canada has made "great strides" in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"We are committed to achieving our emissions reduction target under the Copenhagen Accord," he said. "We are already a quarter of the way to our target." 

Vaughan wouldn't say whether he would recommend a moratorium on oilsands development, but clearly made the point that the government doesn't fully know the environmental impact of the projects that are already underway. He said there are already "significant environmental pressures" and with the industry planning on scaling up over the coming years, those pressures are sure to increase, said Vaughan.

"The list of what they don't know goes on and on unfortunately," he said. The government has promised to fill the information gaps and he said he looks forward to the Conservatives implementing the new monitoring system.

Vaughan's report is mandated under the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act.

Tories breaking Kyoto law: May

The opposition parties were quick to react to the report and blast the Conservatives, saying it confirmed the government has planned "from Day One" to fail on its international climate change obligations.

"The only thing that's going down right now is this government's ambition, not our emissions," the NDP's Megan Leslie told reporters.

Green Party leader Elizabeth May said the Conservatives are fixated on getting tough on crime but are breaking the law by not implementing the Kyoto targets.

"Kyoto is a binding, legal, international treaty. We forget that too often," she said. "We have a government that has broken federal laws and domestic laws in failure to meet Kyoto targets."

Canada's Parliament passed the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act in 2007 that stipulated actions the government needed to take to meet its Kyoto obligations.