Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today. We thought it would be useful to inform the committee about Statistics Canada's current work on environmental statistics accounts and indicators and also to give the committee some sense of Statistics Canada's role in the world of data collection.
Statistics Canada's role in the world of data provision is simply to provide credible, neutral information at arm's length from government in support of defined policy priorities. We're committed to three central things: transparency in everything that we do; adherence to established and publicly known quality standards; and freedom from any sort of interference, real or perceived, from any particular stakeholder group.
With this in mind, let me tell you a little bit about our environmental statistics program. We've been working on environmental statistics since the 1970s, which is probably something that many people don't know. So it's not a completely new program, but it is new in the sense that it has expanded a lot in the last 10 years or so.
The program today contains four broad elements connected to what we do on environment statistics: (1) a growing set of environmental surveys; (2) a set of environmental accounts, where we take data from a variety of different sources, some from our surveys but also some from other departments, and organize them in a fashion that makes them coherent with economic and other statistics; (3) some environment and sustainable development indicators that we compile jointly with Environment Canada and Health Canada; and (4), a number of analytical products that we produce regularly.
We think of ourselves as having a broad mandate to cover essentially all linkages between human activity and the environment. But we try to focus on the immediate linkages between human activities and the environment. We generally steer clear of measures that would be considered purely environmental, such as concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We don't get engaged in compiling that kind of information. Occasionally, however, we report that kind of information in some of our analytical products.
We have with us a list of our expanding set of environmental surveys. Roughly half of the surveys in the list are what I would call well established surveys, ones that we've been running for a number of years now. The other half are more or less new surveys that we started in the last couple of years. I'll flag the new ones for you: the household survey, where we ask households about their environmental behaviours; some new surveys on energy use; a new survey on water use; a new survey on water quality; a new survey, still in the design stage, on industrial pollution emissions. The last three—solid waste management, environment-related expenditures, and environmental technologies—are all surveys we've been doing for about the last 10 years. They are quite established and robust at this point.
I like to describe our environmental accounting program as being about three Cs: consistency, comprehensiveness, and coherence. When we build environmental accounts, we're trying to create structured environmental databases that are consistent over time—that is, they present variables that are measured the same way year after year. This is important for time series analysis. We try to present accounts that are comprehensive. For example, if we measure greenhouse gases in our account, we try to account for all the sources of greenhouse gases, not just some.
Coherence is important as well. We try to make our environmental accounts internally coherent so that different elements of the accounts speak to other parts of the accounts. But perhaps more importantly, we try to make our environmental accounts coherent with the economic accounts that are really central to Statistics Canada's work, and we think that's quite important. Linking the environment and economy through a set of statistics can lead to quite powerful analytical possibilities.
In terms of the kinds information we can get out of this set of environmental accounts, there are really three main areas. One is stocks of natural capital; so we measure timber and water and land and minerals and oil and gas, and so on, in both physical and monetary terms. Second is the use of natural capital as a source of raw materials and a sink for the wastes produced by economic activity. And third, the accounts provide estimates of expenditures undertaken by businesses and governments and households to protect natural capital.
The third broad element of the program is a set—a small set, I would say—of environmental sustainability indicators. These are produced jointly, as I said, with Environment Canada and Health Canada. They've been published since 2005, and three indicators are published. One is a more or less standard indicator of greenhouse gas emissions. The second is a less standard, slightly more interesting indicator of air quality, namely, a population-weighted average of ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter concentrations. And the third is not in fact one indicator but more than 300 indicators, one to measure water quality at each of the various sites across the country where water quality is measured by the federal and provincial governments.
And finally, we have two analytical reports that we prepare on a regular basis. The first is a report that we've been doing for many, many years; in fact, it dates right back to the 1970s. It's called Human Activity and the Environment, an annual compendium of general reference data on the environment. Each year we also do an in-depth statistical portrait of a particular environmental issue in the compendium. So if you were to look at the recently released 2008 edition of this publication, you would see that its thematic article covered climate change. And we've done a variety of other issues; we've covered transportation and the environment, water, energy and the environment, and a number of others.
The second analytical report is a new one for us. It's one that we've only started publishing recently, and it is actually a quarterly bulletin of environmental statistics focused really on analytical output, with short analytical studies on environmental issues. For example, we did a little study recently on greenhouse gas emissions; but rather than looking at emissions from the standard perspective of who's producing them, we looked at emissions from the perspective of what demand for products is actually leading to the emissions of greenhouse gases. So that turned the traditional greenhouse gas emissions story a little bit on its head.
Like all programs, the program has strengths and weaknesses. I like to think there are more strengths than weaknesses—but some days, I'm not so sure. If you look at the strengths, I think the program is well founded conceptually. What I mean by that is that in some sense we know what we'd like to be measuring in terms of the environment and the economy, and what we'd like to be measuring is quite consistent with international best practices in environmental statistics. Also, we have in place the basic building blocks of that environmental information system. We have a good and expanding set of surveys; we have a set of environmental accounts; and we have some environmental indicators.
But the gaps in the program are not insubstantial, and I've listed some of them here. And I would emphasize that this isn't really a comprehensive list, but includes some of the more important gaps.
We don't know as much about water quantity and water quality as we should.
We don't know very much about fish, and when I say “we”, I'm talking about Statistics Canada. I'm not necessarily labelling the Government of Canada as being ignorant about fish in general; certainly DFO knows quite a lot about fish, but I'm talking about what we've done in terms of our environmental statistics and accounts.
Air pollution is not nearly as well covered in the system as it should be. Neither is water pollution. Land areas, other than agricultural and urban land, are not well covered. And ecosystems are, I would say, practically not covered at all.
So those are some of the gaps that exist.
Finally, I'll simply leave you with a thought about how Statistics Canada could fit in, in a broader role, with respect to sustainable development information. I'll simply say that StatsCan is prepared to provide whatever data the government may require for reporting on sustainable development, and of course we do so in keeping with our principles as an arm's-length supplier of statistics and information.
I'll leave it at that, Mr. Chair. Thank you for your time.