Federal government failing to put climate plan into action, environmental watchdog finds

The federal government must put its plan to cut greenhouse gases and adapt to climate change into concrete action to mitigate the catastrophic effects of wildfires, floods and extreme weather events, Canada's environment watchdog warns.

Commissioner Julie Gelfand says stronger leadership needed to move beyond ‘endless planning mode’

Environment watchdog wants to 'see the beef' from the feds on climate action

5 years ago
Duration 6:35
'We come up with all these great plans; they don't get implemented,' says Commissioner Julie Gelfand.

The federal government must put its plan to cut greenhouse gases and adapt to climate change into concrete action to mitigate the catastrophic effects of wildfires, floods and extreme weather events, Canada's environment watchdog warns.

In a blunt fall audit report tabled in the House of Commons on Tuesday, Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Julie Gelfand said the government has failed to implement successive emissions-reduction plans, and is not prepared to adapt to the life-threatening, economically devastating impacts of a changing climate.

It is "crucial" that the government act now, she said.

"It's time for change. The federal government needs to start doing the hard work to turn this latest broad framework into tangible and measurable actions," Gelfand concludes in her report.

The government released the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change in December 2016, which was endorsed by all provinces and territories except Saskatchewan and Manitoba. 

But instead of presenting a detailed action plan to reach the 2020 target for reducing emissions, Gelfand said the government changed its focus to a new 2030 target.

The government has also failed to adopt regulations to reduce greenhouse gases that could help limit the risks of pollution, natural disasters, forest fires and floods, the audit finds.

Adaptation plan not in place

In her report, Gelfand said measures to adapt to climate change can save lives, minimize damage and strengthen the economy, yet a 2011 adaptation policy framework was never implemented.

The federal government has not provided its departments and agencies with the critical tools and guidance to identify and respond to risks.

Only five of 19 departments and agencies examined by Gelfand's audit team had fully assessed risks and taken steps to address climate change. The other 14, including Environment and Climate Change Canada, Public Safety and National Defence, had taken "little or no action" to address the risks.

"If Canada is to adapt to a changing climate, much stronger leadership is needed," she said.

A man tends to a pump at his flooded house on Île Bizard, Que., near Montreal May 8. In a report Tuesday, Canada's environment commissioner says the federal government is not acting quickly enough on implementing plans for adaptation to the effects of climate change, including floods and wildfires. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

At a news conference in Ottawa, Gelfand praised Transport Canada as the "gold star" and "stellar" example of how a government department should be preparing for the inevitable.

That department carried out a comprehensive assessment to identify risks, developed an action plan, then went on to fix vulnerabilities at rail lines, airports and harbours, she said.

Protecting services and infrastructure

The federal government has capital assets with a net value of about $66 billion, including land, buildings, infrastructure, machinery and equipment — investments that must be protected, Gelfand suggested.

The audit says adaptation policies should be in place to ensure services to Canadians despite the unpredictable conditions, especially in northern and coastal and Indigenous communities most vulnerable to the effects of thawing permafrost, reduced sea ice, rising sea levels and severe wildfires.

Environment Commissioner on Ottawa's climate change adaptation

5 years ago
Duration 0:32
Federal Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand comments on the government's preparations for climate change.

Gelfand called on parliamentarians to hold the government to account on its climate change commitments to make sure the framework on climate change and clean growth bears "concrete results" for Canadians.

"Parliamentarians are in a position to help the government take that critical next step that will move it from a seemingly endless planning mode into an action mode," the report reads. "That shift needs to happen, and it needs to happen now, because Canada is already experiencing the impacts of a changing climate."

Taking a 'different path'

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said the government "wholeheartedly agrees" that more must be done and that it is taking a different path from the Harper government, which she said set targets with no plan to meet them. McKenna noted the audit reached back into the term of the previous Conservative government.

"Just as the commissioner recommends, we're working every day to turn our commitments into actions," she said in a statement to CBC News.

"That's why we're taking smart, collaborative and pragmatic action with our partners from provinces, territories and Indigenous communities. We look forward to seeing the results of the significant actions that we have taken since 2015 reflected in future audits."

The audit covered the period from June 2010 to June 2017.

During question period, McKenna said she's "extraordinarily proud" of the Liberal record, noting the government has reduced emissions from coal-fired plants, put a price on pollution and made historic investments in public transit.

Time to 'bend the curve'

At the news conference, Gelfand said at this point the government would not meet its 2030 target without additional measures, but said it needs time to "bend the curve."

She urged the government to more closely track the individual and collective effects of provincial and territorial policies and said she would likely have a better sense of progress in a follow-up audit in about two years' time.

NDP environment critic Linda Duncan said the report confirms the goverment is "all talk and no action" on climate change.

"The Liberals adopted Stephen Harper's weak targets, and now it's clear that they will fail to meet the 2020 targets, yet alone the 2030 targets," she said in a statement.

Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada, said the Trudeau government has not done the hard work of "turning its admirable words on climate change into meaningful action."

"That hard work will bring huge benefits in the form of new jobs and fewer climate-fuelled disasters, but it requires leaders willing to stand up to the powerful oil and auto lobbies and actually implement bold policies," he said.


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