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Federal climate promises 'flawed and unverifiable,' commissioner says

The federal government is spending billions of dollars on climate change programs that are based on inadequate analysis and can’t be monitored, the federal commissioner for the environment says.

In a blistering report tabled in the House of Commons, commissioner Scott Vaughan suggests that figures used by the Harper government are meaningless.

Vaughan looked at two key government climate change programs, the Clean Air and Climate Change Trust Fund and the Public Transit Tax Credit. He concluded that estimates of reduced carbon emissions under the first program are “flawed and unverifiable” and that “it is almost impossible to measure actual greenhouse gas emission reductions attributable to the tax credit.”

Matthew Bramley, of the Pembina Institute, said the study shows that greater accountability is required.

“Despite being presented as programs to cut pollution, one can only conclude on the basis of the commissioner’s report that their main purpose was not environmental,” Bramley said in a media release. “It’s deplorable that Canadians were given the impression the federal government was taking significant action on global warming, when in reality Canada’s action was and remains feeble by international standards.”

In his report, Vaughan noted that the 2007 federal budget contained a $1.5 billion transfer to the provinces to be used for fighting carbon emissions. The money represents what is known as the Clean Air and Climate Change Trust Fund.

Vaughan waded through a series of contradictory statements by the government on exactly what level of emissions cuts the fund is expected to produce. He notes that the Harper government has on a number of occasions predicted the fund will get rid of a total of 80 megatonnes of greenhouse gases.

That’s a substantial portion of the federal government’s overall reduction targets, Vaughan noted. But there’s very little to back the numbers up.

The government “conducted almost no analysis to support that figure, and did not perform key types of analysis,” Vaughan concluded. “The little analysis it did undertake is based on flawed assumptions – for example, that all provinces and territories face identical opportunities, challenges, and economic conditions for achieving emission reductions.

“Since the basis for the estimate is flawed, we cannot determine what a reasonable range of expected results should have been.”

Nor can the government adequately monitor any reductions that take place, Vaughan added.

“Environment Canada has acknowledged that the provincial and territorial governments are accountable only to their own constituencies for expenditures and results under the trust fund, not to the federal government.”

Ottawa has no system for monitoring emissions reductions under the trust fund, the commissioner found.

“Nevertheless, Environment Canada made a claim of expected results in 2007 and repeated it in 2008, knowing that the nature of the trust fund makes it very unlikely that the department can report real, measurable, and verifiable results.”

Vaughan also has some stinging words for the government’s transit pass tax credit, which was promoted as a way of getting people out of their cars.

The government originally said the $200 million-a-year program will reduce emissions by 220,000 tonnes annually.

However, Vaughan found, that prediction has dropped spectacularly since. The Finance Ministry later gave a figure of about half that amount. Then, in 2008, Environment Canada cut its forecast to 35,000 tonnes a year in emissions reductions – an 84 per cent drop from its original estimate.

“Given the lowered figure, the tax credit will have a negligible impact on Canada's greenhouse gas emissions,” the commissioner wrote. “Many factors influence public transit ridership, including the price of gasoline.

“The result is that it is almost impossible to measure actual greenhouse gas emission reductions attributable to the tax credit.”

Nor could Environment Canada provide any analysis to support its claims that the tax credit would reduce other types of air pollution, the report stated.

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor at The Tyee.

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