Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Scott Vaughan, has recently produced a report highlighting a significant failure on the part of the Government of Canada in ensuring that public money spent on environmental initiatives are actually achieving results.

As a member of the Government of Canada’s Office of the Auditor General, the Commissioner is tasked with the responsibility of reporting on the effectiveness of public environment and sustainable development programs and policies.  The Commissioner is also responsible for reporting to Parliament at least once every two years (until 2012) on Canada’s progress towards meeting its Kyoto Protocol obligations.

In his annual report for 2008, Vaughan heavily criticized the government for spending billions of dollars without putting in place mechanisms to measure the impact of ‘green’ expenditures.  He also charged that Canada is not on a path towards sustainable development and that the government cannot demonstrate that environmental programs are achieving intended results.

The report is particularly critical of two measures introduced as part of the widely criticised ‘Turning the Corner’ Climate Change Plan released in 2007.  The first suspect program described by the Commissioner is the Public Transit Tax Credit, which was originally projected to result in annual reductions of 220,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.  Environment Canada lowered the estimated reductions resultant from this program one year later in 2008 to 30,000 tonnes per year, suggesting that the costly $635 million program will have a negligible impact on Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.  The Commissioner concluded in his report that this program is the result of ‘flawed’ analysis on the part of Environment Canada – but it also seems possible that political motivations during previous election cycles played a role in the formulation of the tax credit.

In the report, the Environment and Sustainable Development Commissioner also highlighted the failure of the $1.519 billion Clean Air & Climate Change Trust Fund in producing ‘real, measurable, and verifiable results’.  Vaughan noted that the fund (intended as a mechanism to transfer monies to the provinces for climate change programs) included no conditions to allow for the monitoring of the use of the funds with the consequence that any potential emissions reductions from the program were unquantifiable.  At issue is a fundamental challenge with implementing national policy in Canada, the constant struggle between the federal government and the provinces.  The decentralised nature of political power in Canada often makes national action on the part of federal government difficult.  Very frequently there is no legal obligation for the provinces to spend money transferred to them for the purposes announced by the federal government – in this case, greenhouse gas emissions reductions.   The Trust Fund program was projected to account for 26% of Canada’s emissions reductions during the 2008-2012 time period, but given the lack of analysis regarding expected cuts and non-ability to measure results it seems unlikely that emissions reductions attributable to this program will materialise.  The Commissioner particularly took exception with the government’s repeated claims during 2007 and 2008 that specific GHG cuts were expected from this program when it was fully aware that the government did not have the capacity to quantify any such potential reductions. 

This is not the first time that the Auditor General’s office has sounded alarm bells about climate policy in Canada.  Former Environment and Sustainable Development Commissioner Johanne Gelinas, released a report filled with strong criticism of Canada’s federal government inaction on climate change in 2006.  One might wonder what the 2009 report will look like given Canada’s track record on Kyoto obligations leading up to Copenhagen at the end of this year.


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