New approaches needed to protect Canada’s natural heritage

GLOBE-Net, November 5, 2013

Despite efforts over decades and progress in some areas, the government has not met key legislative responsibilities, deadlines, and commitments to protect nature and advance sustainable development, says Neil Maxwell, interim Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (CESD), in his Fall 2013 report tabled today in Parliament.

Canada is steward to globally significant resources in the form of the unique ecosystems and wide range of species that inhabit its vast territory, and its economy, society and identity are rooted in these natural resources.

“As in past reports, we note that despite some important accomplishments, the challenge of protecting Canada’s natural heritage is immense and pressures are growing,” said Mr. Maxwell. “To make any headway, government needs to look differently at the problems, and find new solutions.”

The findings in this report echo prior CESD audits, speaking to the wide and persistent gap between what the government commits to do and what it is achieving. Despite some important successes, worrisome signs such as declining bird populations and trends that point to diminishing ecosystem health indicate that we are continuing to lose ground in key areas.

To break the pattern of unfulfilled commitments and responsibilities, the government needs to leverage its unique position to promote collaborative approaches and to gather and share sound data, such as scientific research and monitoring measurements, to inform decision-making at all levels.

It must also focus on applying sound management practices, such as clarifying roles and responsibilities and setting targets and timelines given available resources, and on engaging Canadians by building an understanding of the trade-offs that are being made and why, and the results expected and achieved.

“Concerted efforts and innovative approaches are needed to protect species and critical habitat,” said Mr. Maxwell. “In the face of growing pressures and significant challenges, it’s time for departments to follow through on their commitments and improve on their results.”

Ground-breaking approaches are needed

In Canada, the federal government has important, interrelated roles to play with respect to protecting nature and promoting sustainable development, notes the Commissioner.

“To break the pattern of unfulfilled commitments and responsibilities that we have reported on over the years, the government needs to do things differently. It needs to apply new approaches and use the tools at its disposal more effectively in four key areas to address the issues identified in our report: collaborative approaches, reliable information, sound management practices, and transparency and engagement.”

1. Collaborating for better results

Success in protecting land and species at risk involves not only the federal government and its resources; it depends on collaboration with provincial and territorial governments, First Nations, private industry, private landowners, and other citizens.

2. Making good decisions with good information

Good information is at the core of good decisions. Humans are shaping the landscape on an unprecedented scale and so need to understand how development affects the natural environment on which we depend. The federal government is uniquely positioned to compile and analyze the national biodiversity picture. It needs to draw on that strength to gather and share usable and reliable data, such as scientific research and monitoring measurements, to allow for informed decisions at all levels. This includes information about the effectiveness of existing programs and initiatives.

3. Applying sound management practices

We noted weaknesses in management practices in many of the areas we audited, such as a lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities, missing targets and timelines, and the ineffective use of available resources.

4. Fostering transparency and engagement

In the current budgetary context, the government must make difficult decisions about the protection of spaces and species. Trade-offs are inevitable as the government implements its reductions. Parliament and Canadians must be engaged and know what decisions are being made and why, as well as the results expected and achieved.

Gaining ground requires committed action

Finally, notes the Commissioner, Canada needs to gain ground on the issues outlined in this report and close the gap between commitments and results. The challenges are significant, and the pressures continue to grow.

“While individual parliamentarians continue to show interest in our work, in recent years the review of our reports by parliamentary committees has decreased. We encourage committees to seize these opportunities to enhance accountability on the environment and sustainable development to help protect our natural heritage,” he reports. 

Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment,  issued a statement on behalf of the Government of Canada in response to the tabling of the report from the Commissioner of the Environment. “Our Government continues to play a leadership role on issues related to the environment and we are pleased that the Commissioner acknowledges progress is being made in key areas that are important to Canadians, such as biological diversity. Our Government remains committed to promoting sustainable development under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.” 

Full details on the 2013 Fall Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development are avalable here

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