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IISD Reaction to Canadian Environment Commissioner’s 2019 Spring Reports

“Slow action on climate change that is disturbing.”

That stark assessment wraps up Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (CESD) Julie Gelfand’s final report, released earlier today. Coming a day after a government study on Canada’s rapidly rising temperatures was leaked, the report continues Commissioner Gelfand’s work to hold Canada accountable to its environmental pledges.

For her last audit before leaving office, Commissioner Gelfand assessed whether the Government of Canada has taken adequate measures to prevent aquatic invasive species from becoming established in Canadian waters, protected fish and their habitat from mining effluent at active mine sites, and made progress on eliminating tax and non-tax subsidies for fossil fuels (per its international commitments).

Aquatic invasive species - zebra mussels
While the CESD audit found Canada had taken steps to defend against Asian carp, other species like zebra mussels were not resisted as strongly.

When it comes to protecting Canada’s abundant water supplies from aquatic invasive species such as zebra mussels, the report found Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) “did not distinguish its responsibilities with regard to aquatic invasive species from those of the provinces and territories.” Invasive species are a transboundary issue and a federal responsibility. The federal government should be coordinating provincial efforts to combat invasive species and providing the necessary provincial funds.

While the news that DFO has taken significant action to prevent Asian carp species from becoming established in the Great Lakes is encouraging, Canada’s approach to dealing with aquatic invasive species should be risk-based and informed by a national database of current invasive species in Canada that, surprisingly, still does not exist. This will likely result in stronger efforts to tackle, for example, zebra mussels, which pose a great threat to Western Canada, including Lake Winnipeg.

The report also found that DFO “met requirements to protect fish and their habitat from mining effluent.” To improve the monitoring process further, non-lethal methods of testing mining effluent impacts on fish should be more broadly adopted. This would protect fish populations—a pillar of Canada’s economy.

We also need to recognize fish are mobile and not necessarily exposed to contaminants at the site where they were captured. This opens the door for modelling exposures based on other means that do not require lethal sampling of fish—for example, passive samplers. Furthermore, with millions of dollars being spent by mining companies to compensate for loss of fish habitat, it is essential that such compensation be effective and that it be adequately monitored to ensure that it is having the desired effects.

Fossil fuel subsidies Canada
Using an accurate definition is essential to eliminating fossil fuel subsidies.

On fossil fuel subsidies, Commissioner Gelfand found both the Department of Finance’s and Environment and Climate Change Canada’s (ECCC's) work to define both subsidies and “inefficient” subsidies to be incomplete and “not rigorous.” IISD is concerned that both Finance and ECCC disagreed with the audit’s findings, though last week ECCC put out a public call for feedback on non-tax subsidies.

Definitions matter. They are the first step toward meaningful action on eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, which in turn will speed the country’s energy transition and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to damaging climate change impacts.

From an international trade perspective, definitions also matter because countries can bring legal action against other countries’ subsidies through the World Trade Organization (WTO). That is why IISD uses the WTO definition of a subsidy in its work, a choice we will emphasize during the ECCC consultations. It is essential to get this first step right as Canada heads into its peer review with Argentina.

Transparency is good, and it is positive to see two major developments on Canadian fossil fuel subsidies in less than a week. However, the CESD report and our own preliminary assessment of the ECCC discussion document show that there is a lot more work to do on this file if the G20 process is going to be productive. ECCC and Finance must take a harder look at their prior assessments and strengthen both their approach and their definitions.