Photo: New federal sustainability strategy and global enviro ranking both arriving just in time

The Federal Sustainable Development Strategy could help Canada's ranking next to other countries in environmental performance. (Credit: Screen Door Slams via Flickr)

By Pierre Sadik

The strategy has been long awaited in certain quarters and represents an opportunity for Canada to climb out of the global environmental cellar.

The federal government released a draft of Canada's first ever Federal Sustainable Development Strategy in mid-March. The strategy, mandated under the Federal Sustainable Development Act which was enacted in 2008, replaces the widely censured departmental SD process.

The strategy has been long awaited in certain quarters and represents an opportunity for Canada to climb out of the global environmental cellar where, according to various bodies including the OECD, it has dwelled for well over the last two decades and, unfortunately, continues to dwell (more on that later).

In one sense the government's draft strategy is analogous to President Obama's healthcare reform legislation. The strategy represents a dramatic improvement over the existing dysfunctional SD system. However in many respects, like U.S. healthcare reform, it is a disappointing document that does not provide the environmental policy improvements that are urgently needed.

Perhaps the key strength of the new strategy is that, at least on paper, it includes a groundbreaking mechanism for putting the environment at the heart of government policymaking. The strategy promises to employ the Treasury Board's Expenditure Management System (EMS) to put SD at the core of the planning and reporting process in government.

Pursuant to the EMS, each department's role in the SD strategy will be explicitly addressed in the department's Reports on Plans and Priorities (RPP), which present detailed information on what departments do and plan to do over the next three years, and the Departmental Performance Reports, which report the results achieved against the plans set out in previous RPPs. This is a solid step forward for sustainable development planning in Canada.

The previous SD policy had each federal department preparing its own three year SD strategy with little or no reference to what other departments or the government as a whole were doing. The Environment Commissioner likened the situation to one where each department has a piece of the jigsaw puzzle, but no one has the box with the picture on it.

The new approach still requires every department to prepare its own SD strategy, but each strategy must now "comply with and contribute to" the overarching federal strategy. In essence there is now one paramount SD strategy and a series of subordinate strategies each of which must feed into the main strategy.

The strategy includes a strong commitment to measurement, monitoring and reporting, and I believe the ongoing funding for environmental indicators in the recent budget shows the government is serious about credible, albeit narrowly focused, monitoring.

The monitoring will be conducted through the existing Canadian Environment and Sustainability Indicators (CESI) and the Treasury Board EMS process. Further elaboration on how the EMS will be used to report environmental progress is required. Together, EMS and CESI will enable the strategy to report across departments and compare results to the government-wide targets and national goals.

Underlying each of the "themes" and "goals" set out in Annex 1 of the draft strategy are a set of "targets" that are purported to be existing government targets, and are consequently quite weak. The environmental targets are, of course, the most contentious part of this exercise, but the point must be underscored that a solid strategy without robust targets is not particularly meaningful.

The draft strategy is fairly short on details regarding how the EMS, at base a financial cost/benefit tool, will be used to embed principles of SD into the government decision making process. The EMS supports the government in setting priorities and allocating resources to achieve them. It is a process that promotes careful consideration of spending options and sound information on the costs and benefits of alternatives, including information on long-term costs and the sustainability of funding.

In the weeks ahead, and timed to coincide with the government's release of the draft strategy, the David Suzuki Foundation will release the next in a series of studies comparing Canada's environmental performance with that of the other countries of the OECD.

Historically Canada has ranked very poorly in relation to its OECD peers. The most recent two studies, released over the course of the past decade, show Canada ranking second from the bottom of all OECD countries in environmental performance.

The pending report, which is based on data taken from the OECD 2009 Compendium, will reveal that, unfortunately, Canada still ranks second last on the environment. For instance, our record on greenhouse gas emissions puts us fourth last, we're third last on nitrogen oxides, second last on sulphur oxides, and dead last on VOCs.

It is, however, also worth noting that the OECD's top environmental performers have each implemented a meaningful national SD strategy. So a substantial strengthening of the government's draft strategy is perhaps the best opportunity to move Canada out of the cellar.

This column first appeared in the Hill Times.

May 11, 2010

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