The federal government fares poorly when it comes to meeting commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and preparing Canada to adapt to climate change, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development reported Tuesday.
In a broad audit of Ottawa's climate-change policies, the Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand found that only five of 19 government departments and agencies had fully assessed the risks posed by climate change and acted to address them.
She also noted that the federal government had consistently fallen short of targets set to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and much work is required to implement policies needed to meet current promises.
"The impacts of climate change are happening all across Canada. Extreme weather events and aggressive wildfires are likely to continue," said Ms. Gelfand, who works in the Office of the Auditor General.
"Canada has committed to reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases and to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Overall, we have found the government has come up short… It is time to move from planning to action."
Ms. Gelfand's critique comes as the Liberal government is facing pressure to moderate its climate agenda lest Canada gets too far out of step with the United States, where President Donald Trump is cutting climate-related regulations and promoting the use of coal and other GHG-emitting fossil fuels.
Critics in the business community and among conservative politicians warn against imposing costly burdens on industry when Washington is moving in the opposite direction.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has rejected calls for a go-slow approach, arguing Canada would miss out on enormous opportunities that will arise from a global shift to a lower-carbon economy. She also notes that many American cities and states remain committed to climate-change regulations.
The environmental audits review government actions under the previous Conservative mandates and over the two years since the Liberals have been in power – without mentioning the political stripe of the government in power.
Under the former Conservative government, then-prime minister Stephen Harper agreed to emissions-reduction targets internationally but did little to achieve them.
The Liberals have picked up the pace by reaching an agreement with most provinces and territories last December on green growth and climate action. However, many of the broad policy goals in that deal must still be implemented.
In the 2009 Copenhagen Accord, Mr. Harper pledged that Canada would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. However, both the Conservatives and then Liberals who succeeded them in 2015 have dropped that commitment to focus on meeting a 2030 target of reducing GHGs by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
Canada's overall emissions peaked in 2007, the year prior to the great recession. After a steep recession-related drop, they began rising again in 2010 and are projected to continue growing without aggressive new measures.
The Environment Commissioner noted the pan-Canadian climate framework calls for policies in a number of areas, including a federal carbon price that would apply in provinces that do not adopt their own carbon tax or cap-and-trade plan. Much of that plan has yet to be implemented.
In a response included in the audit, Environment and Climate Change Canada said the government is committed to a set of measures, including carbon pricing, which would help reduce emissions by 2020.
While most governments around the world pledge to reduce GHG emissions, scientists say the impacts of climate change are already being seen and will grow as GHG concentrations in the atmosphere increase.
"Risks from climate change cannot be completely eliminated," the Environment Commissioner's report said. "However, vulnerabilities can be reduced by taking measures to adapt."
Ottawa has included adaptation as part of its overall climate policy but the government has failed to properly conduct an assessment of risk. That's especially true for central government departments, like Finance and the Privy Council Office, which serves as support for the Prime Minister's Office.
Ms. McKenna said the audit primarily focusses on the record of the previous Conservative government.
"Our government wholeheartedly agrees that more must be done, and has been clear from the outset that we're taking a different path from that of the Harper government, which set targets with no plan in place to meet them, and did nothing to address climate change," she said in a statement. "Just as the commissioner recommends, we're working every day to turn our commitments into actions."