Sheila Fraser’s exposure of the huge federal sponsorship scandal has made the Office of the Auditor General of Canada recognizable to the public like never before. While the Auditor General reviews all aspects of federal government activities, several prominent positions within the AG office focus on particular areas. The Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development is not a household name but should be of great interest to the waste management sector and businesses that must meet environmental compliance requirements.
The Commissioner’s position was created in 1995 within the AG to report to parliament regarding: Environment and Sustainable Development, Departmental Sustainable Development, Strategies and Action Plans, and to monitor Environmental Petitions from Canadians requesting government response to certain concerns regarding Environment and Sustainable Development. The current Commissioner is Johanne Glinas who was appointed in August 2000 and is the second person to occupy this position. In carrying out her mandate, the Commissioner prepares and provides an annual report to the House of Commons reviewing matters such as audits and studies, sustainable development strategies and environmental petitions.
The 2004 report discusses several issues that may be of interest to readers.
A cynic’s view
The Auditor General’s summary of the Commissioner’s 2004 report only serves to confirm what cynics would call an obvious state of affairs. Consider such statements as these: “Canada does not always know the results it achieves under its international agreements,” “CIDA’s approach to the environment is hit or miss,” “greening the tax system: Finance Canada dragging its feet,” “Ministers make decisions without essential environmental information,” “genetically engineered fish and marine dump sites concern Canadians,” and finally (surprise, surprise) “some salmon populations in trouble.”
Aside from sometimes stating the obvious, the report (at least in its summary form) makes some interesting points which could impact the waste industry. One example is the potential contribution that the waste industry in Canada can have in developing countries. Ideally, Canadian technologies and expertises would be exported under the oversight of CIDA for the benefit of the environment of so-called emerging nations. In order to do so, CIDA must ensure that projects are subject to environmental scrutiny. The Commissioner’s report found that, indeed, indicators that track long term results and benefits have been developed, but there are no provisions for actually measuring such indicators. Without such tools, the benefits and/or costs of any given program are not discernable.
Another area for consideration is the ability of policymakers to use the tax system as an incentive to achieving environmental and sustainable development. In Canada, development of natural resources such as oil and gas exploration, along with the creation of new and emerging technology such as wind power, have been assisted through various tax related initiatives. However, these initiatives have been highly focused and limited to very specific areas. The inability of industry leaders to benefit from environmental tax incentives is a lost opportunity. The Commissioner states that, “Finance Canada is dragging its feet when it should be showing leadership” in this area.
Environmental Assessment — again?
It’s difficult to spend more than a few hours talking to waste industry professionals without encountering some criticism of environmental assessment in Canada, at both the provincial or federal level. The Commissioner’s report expresses concern over the lack of the use of a powerful policy-based decision making tool called “strategic” environmental assessment. Strategic EA is one of the primary tools the feds have to integrate environmental considerations into new policies, plans, or program initiatives.
The original 1990 Cabinet directive clearly requires of federal departments and agencies that they assess the potential environmental impact of initiatives that require ministerial approval. While some departments have made progress, most departments apparently do not apply the directive, or at least they do so poorly. Lack of senior management commitment and public transparency has led to a situation where, “Ministers are not getting the information they need before they make decisions that have long term environmental impact.”
Strategic EA has been the poor cousin of what we’ll call here “Project EA.” Strategic EA is more ethereal than its practical infrastructure cousin, and is less interesting to the media and public. Yet programs such as large-scale waste diversion or transportation and long-term waste policy planning are likely as important as any single project that’s subject to Project EA.
If the Commissioner’s report tells us anything, it’s that the federal and provincial governments must take their Strategic EA requirements seriously to make effective policy planning and environmental protection compatible.
Adam Chamberlain is a certified specialist in environmental law with Aird & Berlis in Toronto, Ontario. Contact Adam at email@example.com