The Walrus

Emissions: Impossible

An unpreceden­ted audit shows that Canada’s climate change policy is missing its targets

- by Anne Casselman

Mike johnson, the emergencym­anagement coordinato­r for Cumberland County, Nova Scotia, is a man on a deadline. He has sixteen years before the moon and the Earth align and produce an exceptiona­lly high tide, an astronomic­al “king tide,” in his county. Some things about that day are a certainty. He knows that the tides at the head of the Bay of Fundy, where Nova Scotia is connected to New Brunswick by the twenty-four-kilometre-wide Chignecto Isthmus, rise as much as sixteen metres — the largest on earth. And he knows that a series of earthen dikes is all that stands as a defence against catastroph­ic flooding. The last time such a large king tide hit, in 2015, Johnson stood on the banks of the Tantramar Marshes, as sixtykilom­etre-per-hour winds spat ocean spray into his face, and watched the sea nearly overtop the dikes. There was a fifty-centimetre storm surge that day, a result of the ocean bulging from a low-pressure system nearby, which, together with high winds, compounded the tide’s high-water mark. The normally pastoral landscape was already partly flooded with seawater. As he turned back toward his car, he saw a CN train cautiously making its way along the tracks that run atop the dike. The water was nipping at the railway ties. He could see headlights of cars, driving along the Trans- Canada Highway behind the train, oblivious to the fact that a hand’s length of dike was all that held back the ocean from pouring onto the highway, flooding the isthmus, and effectivel­y turning Nova Scotia into an island.

Johnson knew then that it wouldn’t take much more for disaster to strike. When it does, Johnson’s priority will be to save lives by evacuating thearea. But depending on the severity of flooding, a lot more is at stake. Some $50 million of goods course through that highway and rail line every day. Prediction­s show that by the next king tide, the ocean will have gained another 7.5 centimetre­s or more on the dikes due to a combinatio­n of sea-level rise from climate change and the land naturally sinking — rendering the dikes useless in a similar storm surge. Johnson might not have to wait sixteen years either; given the right combinatio­n of stormy weather, high tides, and inexorable sea-level rise, the dikes could be overtopped any day now. “We’ve been warned for a number of years now that sea level would be rising and the effects of climate change and how it would impact us,” he says. “It’s not coming anymore. It’s here.”

Nine hundred kilometres away from the mud-marsh dikes of the Chignecto Isthmus, staff at the federal Office of the Auditor General in Ottawa are two weeks away from tabling an unpreceden­ted collaborat­ive report on the state of climate change action and preparedne­ss in Canada. The gentle sounds of typing, mouse clicks, and overhead fans float above the cubicles. On the face of it, the stillness of the toil within the impassive office couldn’t seem further from the drama on Mike Johnson’s horizon, but the work at the office has everything to do with the rising seas gaining on Cumberland County’s dikes. Their nationwide assessment will tell us just how insufficie­ntly government­s across Canada are serving us as we enter this age of climate instabilit­y and

how and where they all need to pick up the slack. “Climate change is one of the biggest issues that we are facing this century,” says federal commission­er of the environmen­t and sustainabl­e developmen­t Julie Gelfand, whose office coordinate­d the audit. “We are feeling the effects already, and they are having an impact.” Since 1948, Canada has warmed by 1.6 degrees, twice the global rate, with our western and northern regions warming the most. Already, we have evacuated an entire city as it burned (Fort Mcmurray’s “the Beast” destroyed 2,400 homes and 18,600 cars), witnessed landscapes transform (permafrost is currently thawing at least 136,000 square kilometres of Canada’s tundra, causing massive landslides and sinkholes), and seen geopolitic­s shift on our doorstep (the Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon traversed the Northwest Passage last year in the initial push to build a “Polar Silk Road” as Arctic sea ice retreats). Of all the hazards that climate change brings to us more frequently and ferociousl­y — wildfires, drought, permafrost melt, disease — flooding poses the biggest risk to the most Canadians, endangerin­g some 1.7 million households. For every degree of warming, the air can hold 7 percent more moisture — which means that as precipitat­ion increases, so does its intensity. In the past half century, precipitat­ion across Canada has increased by approximat­ely 12 percent. No entities in Canada carry greater responsibi­lity for how to handle these changes than our federal and provincial government­s. The government of Canada is the biggest landowner and largest employer in the country, with tangible capital assets worth approximat­ely $66 billion, and its job is to ensure the very fabric that holds our country together and keeps us safe — our health care, our highways, our airports, our infrastruc­ture, our defence — will continue to function in the face of climate change. Only government can put the policy instrument­s in place, be they carrots or sticks, to meet our internatio­nal emission-reduction targets and bankroll massive infrastruc­ture upgrades. The task of holding government­s to account falls to our auditors general, who don’t comment on the merits of policy but rather determine whether policy has been effectivel­y implemente­d and, if not, make recommenda­tions on how to close the gap between words and action. At a time when public trust in government is at a seventeen-year low, the same independen­t government watchdogs that outed the sponsorshi­p scandal that precipitat­ed the demise of Paul Martin’s Liberal government, called out the Canada Revenue Agency’s chronic inability to answer calls from taxpayers, shamed the Ontario Ministry of Health for its cancer-surgery wait times, and flagged the Alberta government’s nugatory multi-billion-dollar class-size-reduction program turned their unflinchin­g gaze to climate change. “In the post-truth world that we’re living in, I would argue that our audits are as close to the truth as you can get,” says Gelfand. She is effusive and candid, with a laugh that cuts through the tension of the moment. At the Canadian Council of Legislativ­e Auditors’ spring general meeting in 2015, Gelfand, two years into her seven-year term as federal commission­er, was pleased to see the council decide to audit one issue together, something it had never done before. For the first time in Canadian history, not only did auditors general across the country agree to audit the same topic but the topic they chose was climate change. Shortly after, notificati­ons began to go out to federal agencies across Canada, nine provinces (Quebec had already tabled two reports related to climate change with a third underway, so it was agreed it would be a partner not a participan­t), and the three territorie­s. The collaborat­ive audit encompasse­d a total of nineteen federal department­s, dozens of provincial department­s, Crown energy corporatio­ns, and hundreds of municipali­ties in an unpreceden­ted effort meant put the entire country on the same page. Canada was a pioneer in developing performanc­e-audit methodolog­y, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the auditor general began to apply it to environmen­tal topics, eventually leading to the creation of the role of commission­er of the environmen­t and sustainabl­e developmen­t in 1995. In the words of Denis Desautels, auditor general of Canada at the time: “Environmen­t became the fourth e in our work, along with economy, efficiency, and effectiven­ess.” Kimberley Leach, principal at the Office of the Auditor General and de facto manager of the climate-change auditing project, is the perfect foil to Gelfand’s Oprah-like enthusiasm, with her quiet speech and equanimity. A civil servant so low profile that she has no Linkedin page, Leach has been chief draftspers­on behind many of the commission­er’s heaviesthi­tting audits in recent years. “Our world is increasing­ly interdepen­dent, so I think collaborat­ive auditing is both a reaction and a way forward on that,” she says. Over her career, she has come to know all too well that examining one jurisdicti­on at a time would never be enough, given the patchwork of policies on climate change across the country. “We can look at the federal regime, provinces can look at their own regimes, but what is the overall picture? That was our mission, to be able to put together those pieces,” she says. Each auditor general was responsibl­e for tabling a climate change audit at its legislatur­e that would then be synthesize­d into a big-picture report with the Ottawa team. The auditors examined

Insurance payouts in Canada for extreme weather have already skyrockete­d in recent decades to $1 billion a year.

two facets of climate change for each of their jurisdicti­ons: where their government stood relative to their greenhouse­gas-emission-reduction targets and how well they were adapting in the face of climate change. On the climate front, mitigation and adaptation are inextricab­ly linked. Because our greenhouse-gas emissions are cranking up the Earth’s thermostat, the more carbon dioxide and methane we produce, the warmer the planet gets and the greater the changes we will face. The more we reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions, the less steep the incline to overcome. But, no matter what reductions in emissions we make today, correcting the course of our climate will take centuries. In the meantime, adaptation is compulsory. Any policy area where government had committed to climate change action was fair game, and on this topic, our government­s have promised a lot. They have committed to reducing our greenhouse gases many, many times. They have set deadlines for emission reductions that they’ve consistent­ly missed. Over the last twenty-two years, Canadians have seen four different federal government­s hatch seven different climate change plans, and all the while, our emissions keep rising. According to the Parliament­ary Budget Office projection­s in 2016, Canadian emissions would need to fall by 208 million tonnes of CO2 (or equivalent of other gases) to meet our 2030 target set in the Paris Agreement. As the PBO points out, this is the equivalent of taking every single car, truck, and ATV in Canada off the road. In short, we are off by a lot. Part of this discrepanc­y results from the toll our democratic process has taken on climate change action. With each change in government, our climate plan changes. New government­s never go back to square one on an issue such as universal health care, but on the climate issue, it’s de rigueur to replace the previous plan entirely, no matter the merits or momentum of the old. The graveyard of climate change policies is littered with such ghosts of hopes past such as Jean Chrétien’s 1995 National Action Plan on Climate Change or Stephen Harper’s tragically titled Turning the Corner Plan. Suffice to say, Canada did not turn the corner, while scores of other countries have, including the United States, whose carbon dioxide emissions have dropped by 13 percent over the past decade. “Every time that you stop this, then there’s a cost,” says Scott Vaughan, who served as environmen­tal commission­er during the Harper years. “When you rip it out and say, ‘I’m going to redesign my kitchen, because what I put down I don’t really like, and do it again,’ I think most Canadian households will go, ‘Are you

“The auditor general’s reports will never be very popular with government because that’s just the way politics is.”

crazy, you haven’t even turned the water on the taps yet.’” The current national political discourse on climate change focuses on win-win scenarios: we can have our economy and our environmen­t too. We can build pipelines as well as tax carbon. And that may be. Canada’s GDP long ago decoupled from our carbon dioxide emissions. We generate more economy while polluting less than we ever used to. But the reality is that climate change won’t be win-win for everyone. The National Round Table on the Environmen­t and the Economy estimated in 2011 that by 2050 climate change will cost Canada between $21 billion and $43 billion a year. At the upper end, that’s the equivalent of just under one-third of all the federal personal-income tax collected in Canada last year. Insurance payouts in Canada for extreme weather have already skyrockete­d in recent decades, to $1 billion a year, and the federal fund that helps provinces and territorie­s recover from natural disasters doled out more money in the six years leading up to 2015 than in the previous thirty-nine fiscal years combined. If the environmen­t and the economy go so tightly hand in hand, then what does it say when our environmen­t is costing our economy and citizens so dearly? With two weeks to go, the Office of the Auditor General in Ottawa is sombre and earnest, with its beige walls and monthly “enviro tips” that rotate on a flat screen by the staff entry: pick up some litter and reuse your eggs cartons for craft projects, they suggest. Canada sees itself as a climate-forward country — environmen­tally aware, conscious, and active. The collaborat­ive audit will tell us if that’s true and whether our gaze is sufficient­ly focused on the not-so- distant and somewhat terrifying horizon.

On June 16, 2016, approximat­ely 130 millimetre­s of rain fell on Chetwynd, a small town in northeaste­rn British Columbia. The amount it received in that one day was more than one-quarter of the total rain that falls on the town in a typical year. Mary Jane Barton and her husband live twenty-seven kilometres west of Chetwynd in a small rural community called Hasler Flat, nestled against the foothills of the Rockies. The Bartons were lucky. The Pine River rose up gently to flood their property, sort of like backwater. But their neighbours’ experience was a different story. A small creek runs through their lot, something you could cross by foot and emerge from with damp shoes. That day, the creek changed beyond recognitio­n. It wasn’t just the volume of water that was terrifying — with it came dump trucks’ worth of gravel and rocks that hurtled down with unstoppabl­e force. “It came down like a giant snowplow,” says Barton. At one point, she looked out the window of her upstairs bedroom to see a neighbour’s white camper trailer being carried away in the torrent. “It looked just like a white Styrofoam cup bobbing in water, and away it went,” she says. The downpour felled power and phone lines, undermined a section of

rail tracks, exposed two pipelines, and washed out the highway in both directions, stranding the Bartons and some forty other families in the area for nine days. They had no power, no phones, and no way out, because they were unable to get past what she calls “the Bowl,” a thirty-metre-wide, twenty-five-metredeep hole in the highway. Four months later, Katie Olthuis, an auditor at the BC Office of the Auditor General, visited the same stretch of highway. The flood waters had long receded, but signs of their destructiv­e force remained. “You wouldn’t think that water could take apart metal, but it really looked like it could,” she says, recalling the sight of culvert pipes that the water and debris had torn apart. Olthuis had come to Chetwynd to see what adaptation would mean for the BC Ministry of Transporta­tion and Infrastruc­ture, which is responsibl­e for maintainin­g and upgrading the province’s highways. During the flood, many of the culverts that ran under the highway were unable to divert the massive volumes of rainwater. The result was a giant whirlpool that carved a crater in the road. The BC Ministry of Transporta­tion and Infrastruc­ture had recently updated its standards to accommodat­e spikes in precipitat­ion that are expected to swell waterways as a result of climate change. Ministry workers were there to assess damage, but they were also rebuilding with a view to climate- change-proof the highway. The width of culverts under roads or the amount of rip-rap positioned to stave off erosion — these are the details that make the difference between an intact road and a washedout highway that leaves forty families stranded and relying on helicopter drops of propane. The examinatio­n phase of a performanc­e audit typically involves grinding away on gargantuan files with auditing software, but the BC audit team wanted to see climate adaptation for itself. “There’s a lot of public discussion around mitigation,” says Carol Bellringer, auditor general of British Columbia. “I think there’s less conversati­on, and there should be more around what is being done on adaptation.” BC faces increased risk of drought, flood, and forest fire, and Bellringer and her team saw an opportunit­y to provide value to British Columbians, more than 65,000 of whom were evacuated last year during the province’s worst wildfire season on record, by making recommenda­tions to government on how to improve its climate resiliency. By the time Bellringer tabled her province’s climate change audit in mid-february, Ontario, Saskatchew­an, Manitoba, Newfoundla­nd and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, the Yukon, the Northwest Territorie­s, and Nova Scotia had already tabled their individual reports, with only Alberta and Nunavut outstandin­g. Gelfand had tabled her federal climate change audit report in late 2017, which, among other revelation­s, noted that five out of nineteen federal department­s had not fully assessed their climate change risks. Cumulative­ly, the federal, provincial, and territoria­l audits began painting a grim picture of Canada’s climatecha­nge preparedne­ss across the board. How could Environmen­t and Climate Change Canada ensure continued weather forecasts if it hadn’t assessed the risks that climate change poses to its very own weather stations? How could Manitoba’s former ND P government know in 2009 that it wouldn’t be able to meet the emissions targets it set in 2008 but do nothing for another six years? And how could the Northwest Territorie­s’ Department of Infrastruc­ture lack a formal climateada­ptation plan for public buildings that could be structural­ly compromise­d from melting permafrost? As the list of indictment­s rolled in to the environmen­tal commission­er’s office in Ottawa, the team summarized and tabulated the observatio­ns from around the country. Each individual audit was key for the single summary report to show a cross-canada picture. After all, if the auditors general couldn’t get on the same page on climate change, what hope did the provinces and feds have of coordinati­ng efforts to actually do something about it?

On March 27, Julie Gelfand tabled “Perspectiv­es on Climate Change Action in Canada: A Collaborat­ive Report from Auditors General,” a historic culminatio­n of two years of audit work across thirteen jurisdicti­ons, in Parliament. What stands out in the fifty-three-page report is that everyone is pointing in different directions. The federal government’s current target is to reduce emissions by 30 percent of its 2005 levels by 2030, while several provinces’ climate plans, including that of Alberta’s ND P government, fail to name any emission target. Of the provinces and territorie­s that have a 2020 target — seven do not — Nova Scotia was the only one to already meet its target. Other provinces, including Ontario, have seen their emissions fall, just not by enough. Many government­s, when not on track to meet their next target, simply set a new one, further into the future, after they’ll be long gone from power. “We’re in a really weird Canadian groupthink mentality that targets don’t matter,” says federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May. “Successive Canadian government­s have missed their targets, while other countries around the world have hit their targets. Targets do matter.” Just as worrying, the report reveals that many government­s don’t have the machinery in place to measure and report on their climate action. Climate initiative­s run big bills, mobilize vast resources, and affect millions of lives. The audit identified a consistent lack of feedback and reporting mechanisms in place to tell us what we’re getting for these investment­s of tax dollars. Of all the provinces and territorie­s, Nova Scotia, one of the country’s smallest provinces, had one of the most positive audit results. In his province’s individual audit, Auditor General Michael Pickup made only three recommenda­tions for climate change management, including one proposal that the province update its more-than-decade-old risk ratings, which rank the severity of the risks of climate change. Revisiting its assessment would determine whether any risks, such as the threats to dikes or transporta­tion infrastruc­ture, had intensifie­d, and what new mitigation measures are needed. Environmen­t and Climate Change Canada, the department responsibl­e for federal climate plans, responded over email that they commended the auditors for the “seriousnes­s with which they are taking the challenge of climate change” but also that “audits are inherently backwardlo­oking” and this one, they claim, didn’t include the massive nationwide effort currently underway with the federal government’s latest climate plan, the Pan-canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. It is true that legislativ­e auditors often look at what has happened more than what is planned. “The auditor general’s reports will never be very popular with government because it’s just the way politics is, and that will not change,” says Jean Charest, former environmen­t minister and former Quebec premier. “But the fact of the matter is the auditors’ reports do have an effect, and they become the benchmark and the way by which we measure whether or not we’re accomplish­ing what we said we would accomplish.” Government­s across the country now know where they have fallen short, but for Gelfand there has already been avaluable outcome. With nine provinces, the territorie­s, and the federal government on board, legislativ­e auditors across the country have had climate change top of mind for a year at least, maybe two. Where the individual auditors saw an exercise, she saw an opportunit­y to plant the seeds of awareness of climate change and sustainabl­e developmen­t in auditors’ offices across the country. With few exceptions, most auditors make self-effacing jokes about how dull their work is, and it’s almost convincing. The truth is that their desk-bound toil, which would strike most as tedious, is almost heroic in its unflagging dedication to improve government efficacy on issues that unfold with great urgency on the ground. The dikes can be upgraded. Our emissions can go down. Storm sewers can be redesigned to handle more intense rainfall.

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