Feds can’t prove their costly green programs work

Gaps in reporting, accountability: report

Last Updated: Thursday, February 5, 2009 | 5:24 PM ET Comments389Recommend142

The federal government is spending billions to curb greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution but is largely unable to show the measures work, Canada’s environment commissioner warns.

“The government cannot demonstrate that the money it is spending on some important environmental programs is making a difference,” Scott Vaughan, commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, said in the prepared text of the speech accompanying his report, which was tabled in the House of Commons Thursday.

“The government needs to know what works, what doesn’t and why. However, our audit work for this report found gaps in the information….”

In cases where information was available, the report suggested Canadians sometimes got little value for their money.

Vaughan’s report, his first since being appointed to the post in May 2008, found that:

  • Provinces weren’t required to report how they spent $1.5 billion distributed to fight climate change.
  • The new public transit tax credit was “disappointing relative to the $635-million cost” at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Environment Canada doesn’t have an effective way to verify nationally the timeliness and accuracy of the 10,000 severe weather warnings it issues each year.
  • There is little data on the results of $370 million spent to reduce pollution from farming.
  • The government has no way to determine whether its own departmental sustainable development strategies are meeting their goals.

Clean air, climate change audit ‘disappointing’

Much of Vaughan’s criticism about the government’s environmental programs was targeted at its efforts to fight air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The report examined the $1.5-billion Clean Air and Climate Change Trust Fund, which distributed money to the provinces and territories.

Vaughan, who is part of the office of the auditor general, noted provinces are not required to report how the money was spent or what results were achieved. In addition, he found that Environment Canada used flawed analyses and assumptions to estimate that the program would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 megatonnes between 2008 to 2012.

“In order to be credible to Canadians and the rest of the world, the government’s plans for reducing air pollution must be able to produce measurable results,” Vaughan said in a statement. “In that respect, most of what our audit found was disappointing.”

Transit tax credit ineffective

The report also looked at the public transit tax credit, which was introduced in the 2006 budget and is expected to have cost the government $635 million by the end of the 2008-2009 fiscal year. In 2007, Environment Canada predicted the tax credit would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 220,000 tonnes, but a year later, it later lowered its estimate by 84 per cent, to 35,000 tonnes.

“Given the lowered figure, the tax credit will have a negligible impact on Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions,” Vaughan’s report said.

‘Well, if you can’t measure it, … you can’t manage it, so we’re not managing the climate change file effectively.’— Aaron Freeman, Environmental Defence

In addition to greenhouse gas reductions, the report looked at new regulations to reduce the release of toxic and carcinogenic emissions such as benzene, a chemical that is released from gas pumps and acrylonitrile, which is used to manufacture synthetic rubber.

In the case of acrylonitrile, it found the government didn’t verify reporting by the private sector on compliance, and emissions saw a “rapid increase” in the three years after the new regulations were introduced. It also largely isn’t enforcing benzene regulations and doesn’t know whether they are achieving results, the report said.

The report was originally scheduled to be tabled in December, but its release was postponed when Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean prorogued Parliament at Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s request. Parliament resumed on Jan. 26.

Minister Prentice defends transit tax credit

After the report was tabled, Environment Minister Jim Prentice said the government has already begun taking action on the environment commissioner’s recommendations.

“We’ll evaluate what’s been said and take the necessary action,” he said.

When asked about the questionable carbon reduction estimates criticized by the commissioner, Prentice said the government was working with the best available information at the time.

He also defended the transit tax credit, saying it wasn’t intended just as an environmental measure but as a tax cut for students, seniors and other transit users.

“It needs to be measured in light of both those public policy objectives,” he said.

Opposition MPs said they weren’t surprised by the report.

“Unfortunately, that’s what we’ve come to expect from this government,” said NDP Leader Jack Layton.

He said the government should have thought ahead before giving away money for greenhouse gas reductions.

“I think it’s essential that when you launch into a program, you at the same time have an evaluation system set up so that you know whether it’s working. We don’t have time to waste here,” Layton said.

Ottawa South Liberal MP David McGuinty said he had raised questions a year ago about whether the transit tax credit was good value for money. He added the government should have set out criteria and objectives before distributing greenhouse gas reduction money to the provinces through the Eco-Trust program, which he called the “Eco-fraud.”

Aaron Freeman, policy and campaigns director for the environmental group Environmental Defence, said he found the report disturbing.

“What we’re seeing time and time again is an absence or a total inadequacy when it comes to enforcement, monitoring and accountability,” he said, adding that that doesn’t bode well for Canada’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Well if you can’t measure it, … you can’t manage it, so we’re not managing the climate change file effectively.”

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