Mr. Speaker, it is my pleasure to rise to speak to Bill C-57.
According to the world-renowned economic theorist, Jeremy Rifkin, “Facing the prospect of a second collapse of the global economy, humanity is desperate for a sustainable economic game plan to take us into the future.”
Rifkin suggests that Internet technology and renewable energy are merging to create a powerful third industrial revolution. He asks us to imagine hundreds of millions of people producing their own green energy in their homes, offices, and factories, and sharing it with each other in an energy Internet, just like we now create and share information online.
Why do I mention Jeremy Rifkin in discussing Bill C-57?
His foresight in naming this period we have entered as the third industrial revolution was a constant theme at the recent World Economic Forum's Sustainable Development Impact Summit during Climate Week in New York City. I was fortunate to participate at the invitation of the Environment Minister.
The workshop themes focused on the priorities to move us forward into this revolution in thinking and action, including accelerating financing for global energy conversion, strengthening partnerships for a sustainable future, transforming skills, and empowering citizens, and women in particular. These dialogues were all centred on the common recognition of the need to expedite action on the 17 sustainable development goals adopted by the UN in September 2015.
Unlike the previous iteration of sustainable development forged in the 1987 Brundtland report, this new agreement, called “Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, recommended “bold and transformative steps...to shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path.”
There is a rapidly growing global recognition of the need for much broader considerations in the decisions we make about our future, including in developing policies and programs. These UN goals reflect the need to consider not only environmental but also social and economic considerations in seeking sustainability.
We require political will to make this shift, and as former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore has aptly shared, “Political will is a renewable resource”. As my new leader has said, there is hope for change.
In 2016, the Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development recognized the need to revisit Canadian law and policy on sustainable development. It undertook a study of the Federal Sustainable Development Act and submitted to the House a report with recommendations to update and strengthen Canadian law in directions that could better deliver these revised goals for sustainability.
Where are we at in Canada today?
By way of background, in 1995 the federal government created the position of the commissioner for environment and sustainable development within the Office of the Auditor General, and charged her with responsibility for providing sustainable development monitoring and reporting on the progress of category I departments towards sustainable development, which is a continually evolving concept based on the integration of social, economic, and environmental concerns.
In 1999, the federal cabinet then issued the cabinet directive on the environmental assessment of policy, plan and program proposals, supported by a series of guidelines obligating each minister to ensure that their departmental policies, plans, and programs were consistent with the government's broad environmental objectives and sustainable development goals. These must be contained in reports to ministers and the cabinet. The directive also requires the public reporting on the extent and results of strategic environmental assessments. Interestingly, the directive makes mandatory a gender lens, but an environmental assessment of proposed policies and programs is not mandatory.
That said, it is one step to issue a directive, but another to take action to ensure that it is complied with. Disappointingly, repeated audits by the commissioner over the past decade have reported significant failures in both the delivery of the departmental sustainable development strategies and compliance with the cabinet directive.
What does the current Federal Sustainable Development Act provide, and how well has the government succeeded in delivering useful results?
The current act was forged from an almost complete rewrite of a private member's bill that originally proposed the creation of a national sustainable development strategy; required short, medium and long-term targets to dramatically accelerate the elimination of all environmental problems, from a cap on emissions to penalties for non-compliance, to full cost accounting and the implementation of regulations; and the creation of a commissioner independent of the Office of the Auditor General, a proposal that captured considerable support at the time.
The actual Federal Sustainable Development Act provides a legal framework for developing and implementing a federal sustainable development strategy based on the precautionary principle, with goals and targets. The act is framed in the basic principle that sustainable development is based on the ecologically efficient use of natural, social, and economic resources and the need to integrate all of those factors in decision-making. It calls for a committee in the Privy Council Office to provide oversight. It establishes a sustainable development office within the Department of the Environment that is mandated to develop and maintain systems to monitor progress in implementing the federal sustainable development strategy and to report every three years on progress in that regard. It then establishes a sustainable development advisory council chaired by the Minister of Environment. There are currently no per diems for council members, as it was a private member's bill. The act further specifies the departments and agencies that are obligated to prepare sustainable development strategies. Finally, it requires that all performance-based contracts must adhere to the strategies.
In testifying at committee, the commissioner described this approach as more of a federal environmental strategy than a sustainable development act. She observed that the strategies produced to date have focused more on the environment alone, as opposed to the broader environmental, social, and economic aspects of sustainable development. In her view, clearly reflective of the 2015 UN goals, “Practically speaking, sustainable development means thinking about how decisions can affect the economy, society, the environment, and the well-being of future generations.”
Again, as noted, the commissioner has repeatedly reported that the majority of departments and agencies have failed to adequately comply with the cabinet directive. In her 2015 audit, she reported that only five out out more than 1,700 proposals submitted to ministers provided the required environmental report. She also reported that less than 50% of proposals to cabinet filed the necessary reports.
Her report released just this week offers a similarly dismal assessment, with 80% of the departments and agencies she audited failing to deliver the required assessment. She reported that neither the Privy Council Office nor Treasury Board is seeking assurances that the strategic environmental assessment is completed. She also reported that five out of six entities audited failed to even apply the directive.
What recommendations did the committee make to improve sustainable development assessments? Following a review of the act and the results delivered, it recommended a number of substantive reforms, including expanding the factors to be considered in the sustainable development strategies; requiring a whole-of-government approach, consistent with the recommendation of the commissioner; requiring comprehensive engagement of all central government agencies, not just Environment Canada; referencing key sustainable development principles as the basis of any strategies; charging all parliamentary committees with responsibility to review the strategies; requiring all committees to review progress reports from the commissioner; making specific reference in the law to Canada's international commitments; and specifying short, medium, and long-term goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
Does Bill C-57 respond to these criticisms and recommendations? Regrettably, while some changes are proposed in Bill C-57 to improve the act, it contains few of the recommended substantive reforms. The bill does propose additional principles to be added to guide development of any sustainable development strategy, although it lacks reference to important commitments, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and environmental justice principles.
Responsibility for leading the development and monitoring of the strategies remains unchanged, and is still vested in an official within the Department of the Environment appointed by and reporting to the environment minister. That official is to report on the progress of the Government of Canada, but the official's current role appears minimally changed by the bill.
The reports are still only referred to the environment committee. It not clear how that will deliver the revised purpose of accountability to Parliament or deliver coordinated action across the government to advance sustainable development. The committee recommended that these reports go to all of the committees, since sustainable development affects the whole of government.
While the Treasury Board is granted a discretionary power to establish policies and directives, it is limited to environmental reports, not the full 17 sustainable development goals recommended by the commissioner. The minister's advisory committee may now be paid honoraria, but all members are chosen by the minister, and are not self-selected, which will raise concerns on the part of many in the community.
The act does now require time frames for each target. Based on the most recent report by the commissioner, and absent more centralized oversight entrenching a more whole-of-government commitment, there can be little confidence there will be improved accountability or action for embracing the sustainable development goals. The facade of the government may be painted green, but the internal machinery regrettably will remain entrenched in outdated thinking until reforms are made to lead us into this third industrial revolution for a transformed planet.
I would like to share that I do find hope elsewhere. I find hope in the change-makers who are activating a global network of social entrepreneurs, innovators, business leaders, policy-makers, and activists to build an “everyone a changemaker” world. This award-based competition is aimed at mobilizing key change-makers and change-maker institutions to develop and scale the most innovative solutions. The challenge is designed in a way to facilitate the creation of innovators who can work together to scale the best solutions. Participating institutions are encouraged to field “change teams” as participants, pooling the perspectives of, for example, students, faculty, and administrators to co-design solutions. Individual innovators are encouraged to connect and collaborate on solutions. Collectively, these teams become part of a broader community of practice, supported through tools such as peer reviews, stories, hangouts, and physical meet-ups designed to inspire, support, and inform the implementation and scaling of leading ideas.
I have been inspired by the efforts of Alberta change-makers taking concrete action to meet sustainable development goals. For example, Desa Crow Chief of the Siksika, as a change-maker, is hoping to hold an indigenous environmental summit to promote clean energy transition and environmental rights for first nations. Also, at the University of Alberta, the CODER project will provide open data access on renewable energy. I am inspired by these youth, as I am sure the minister is, many of whom we had the opportunity to meet in New York City and in Canada. Therein I find hope. I wish I were more hopeful in regard to this new statute, but I look forward to discussion and potential amendments at committee.