Technology & Science

Federal predictions of greenhouse gas reductions are exaggerated: watchdog

The federal government has overstated greenhouse gas reductions expected as a result of its climate change plans and is failing to count the actual reductions, says a report from the environment commissioner.

The federal government has overstated greenhouse gas reductions expected as a result of its climate change plans and is failing to count the actual reductions to see if they match with predictions, according to a report tabled in Parliament.

"Without a system to count real emission reductions that result from its measures, the government will not be able to inform Parliament whether the measures are working," Scott Vaughan, commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, said Tuesday in the text of a prepared statement.

Vaughan, who works in the Office of the Auditor General of Canada, made the findings in audit reports tabled in Parliament Tuesday alongside reports from the auditor general:

  • One examines the plans that the government must produce each year showing how it will meet its obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, as required by the 2007 Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act.
  • The other looks at government efforts to protect fish habitat under a 1986 policy last examined by the environment commissioner in 2001.

In both cases, the audits suggested that the government was doing a poor job of monitoring compliance with its laws.

Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was an international agreement to cut emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide that have been linked to global climate change.

By adopting the agreement in 2002 under Jean Chrétien's Liberal government, Canada committed to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels by between 2008 and 2012, to 564 megatonnes (MT) in 2012.

However, in February 2007, Stephen Harper's minority Conservative government stated that it would not attempt to meet the Kyoto targets.

The Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act was passed in June 2007 by the opposition Liberal, NDP and Bloc Québécois members. Its stated purpose was to "ensure Canada takes effective and timely action" to meet its obligations under Kyoto obligations.

However, John Baird, who was environment minister at the time, did announce an alternate plan with more modest goals.

The report noted that monitoring plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are important as climate change linked to the emissions could have a range of impacts. Changes in the availability of water, increased frequency of forest fires, more pest infestations, more frequent and severe storms could cause property damage and affect economic sectors such as forestry.

With respect to fish habitat, poor oversight could threaten commercial and recreational fishing sectors worth $2.2 billion and $7.5 billion to the economy in 2005, the report said.

Lack of transparency

In looking at Environment Canada's 2007 and 2008 climate change plans, which included greenhouse gas reduction measures such as incentives to boost the use of renewable fuels, Vaughan found:

  • Environment Canada overstated reductions it expects in greenhouse gas emissions between 2008-2012, as those include reductions that are unlikely to occur before 2012. Vaughan blamed the problem on accounting methods, delays in implementing programs and the complicated nature of the calculations.
  • The government is unable to monitor actual reductions resulting from some of the measures in its plans, and acknowledges that it lacks such a monitoring system.
  • The plans are not fully transparent.
  • The plans are missing other information required by the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, including how total national greenhouse gas emission levels compare with Canada's Kyoto target or whether measures under the plan were put in place on time.

"A recurring flaw … is the lack of transparency on the part of the government as to how forecast reductions are calculated," the report said. It noted that the potential effect of factors such as energy prices and economic conditions are not included.

In addition, the report said, the department did not explain why it could estimate some emission reductions in advance, but could not measure the actual emission reductions after new emission reduction measures were put in place.

Environment Canada has accepted most the commissioner's recommendations to correct those issues.

However, it has refused to state emission reductions in the year they are likely to occur, and said it will explain its approach in the next plan.

Fish habitat data lacking: report

With respect to the government's policy on protecting fish habitat, the report found that:

  • The government had little information about fish habitat across Canada, and therefore wouldn't know whether its policies are meeting the policy's goal of increasing the amount of fish habitat.
  • Some parts of the 23-year-old policy had been implemented only partially or not at all.
  • Environment Canada, which is in charge of stopping the discharge of harmful pollutants into waters where fish live, hasn't identified what it must do to meet that responsibility.

"The Fisheries Act is among the most important laws of the federal government intended to promote environmental protection and conservation," Vaughan said.

"I am concerned that many of the issues identified in our audit have been raised repeatedly over many years and they are still unresolved."

Report's findings 'troubling': environmentalists

Environmental organizations said the report shows the government must take real action.

"This lack of transparency and accountability masks the fact that the federal government does not have a Canada-wide plan to achieve real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions," said Ian Bruce climate change specialist for the David Suzuki Foundation, in a news release.

"For example, the federal government has yet to put in place regulations to reduce emissions for Canada's major polluters. The government promised these regulations more than two years ago."

Clare Demerse, associate director of the Pembina Institute's climate change program, called the report's findings "troubling" and said the government must take a more ambitious approach.

"This year's critical [United Nations] climate negotiations provide Canada's government with an opportunity to … [take a new approach] at a time when all countries' actions will be under intense scrutiny," she said in a statement.

"To help rebuild Canada's credibility, Environment Minister Jim Prentice needs to initiate the legal process required to cap Canadian emissions before the UN climate conference in Copenhagen this December."