There was some polite applause after retired atmospheric scientist John Reid stood up to ask his question.
Reid, who used to work at Environment and Climate Change Canada, wanted to know whether the public actually had the tools to track the government's climate change promises, when it takes years for the department to release greenhouse gas emissions data.
“How do you hold people accountable when you have such a delay in the information becoming available?” he asked. “And is it credible, when it comes from the same organization that produces the regulations?”
Reid was in the audience at a panel discussion on climate change science at an Ottawa convention centre on Tuesday. The event was hosted by Statistics Canada, the country's national statistical agency.
The Trudeau government has promised to set a national price that polluters would pay for releasing heat-trapping carbon emissions into the atmosphere. This carbon tax would be a major component of the government's plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions. Federal officials have been drafting regulations to implement the new tax.
John Moffet, a top Environment and Climate Change Canada official who is acting as associate assistant deputy minister, responded to the scientist by saying that he hopes the new rules to implement the carbon tax will also usher in a new era of transparency.
“The short answer is that both issues will improve in the near-term," Moffet told Reid. “I think you will see more timely information, and more credible information."
It just isn't clear when that will happen.
Critics, including staff from the office of the auditor general, say the public is often left in the dark about government commitments to tackle climate change, with little public data available to hold politicians to account for their promises. Successive federal governments have promised to take action on climate change and reduce emissions since the 1990s, but none of them have ever met their goals.
The auditor general's office has also spent a lot of time trying to pin down the government on its progress, warning that Canada has a long way to go to meet its goals.
Moffet, from Environment and Climate Change Canada, explained that the government can tackle these concerns through new emerging regulations.
“As the reach of our regulations is extended, in particular through broad-based initiatives like carbon pricing and the clean fuel standard, we will also be able to extend the reach of our [carbon pollution] reporting obligations,” Moffet told Reid at the event.
Earlier in the talk, during introductory remarks, Moffet also said Environment Canada is now “the most active regulator in the federal government” in terms of the number of regulations it puts into effect.
The federal Environment Department in Canada publishes greenhouse gas emissions data on a yearly basis — which is then delayed by several months before being publicly released. For example, the most current national inventory report on emissions includes data up to the year 2015.
The department gets its emissions data from across the country through both “a very general reporting obligation that’s been in place for about a decade,” and through more specific regulations, Moffet said. Then the department makes sure the data has been assembled, collected and reported as required, which he said takes time.
The exchange between Moffet and Reid coincided with the release of a new United Nations report that found an "alarming gap" between commitments made by countries to reduce greenhouse gases and the amount of action required to prevent global warming of more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, considered to be a threshold of major irreversible damage to the economy and the planet's ecosystems.
Data sought to compare profitability, emissions
Andrew Leach, an associate professor at the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta, who was the chair of the provincial government’s climate change advisory panel in 2015, agreed that the complexity of gathering emissions inventory data means that it takes time to coordinate existing data into a single national profile.
“It is a challenge to get it out there. It’s not like it’s there and it’s being held on to for 15 months,” he said.
But Leach also suggested in his own remarks that Canada needs more detailed and timely data on carbon pollution so it can better design policies and programs to mitigate climate change.
He said data was lacking that cross references revenues and profitability with emissions intensity, energy use and capital stock. Economists need this complete picture to better predict the impact of climate change policies on regions and industries, he said.
Behold the wonders of Canadian refined product net exports data after confidentiality requirements render it useless. Embarrassing. pic.twitter.com/HtBFPdYd55— Andrew Leach 🇨🇦 (@andrew_leach) September 26, 2017
An example he gave is figuring out whether the stock of low-efficiency furnaces is concentrated in low-income housing. Such data could help governments craft better retrofit policies, building codes or incentive programs, he said.
Monica Gattinger, professor and director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, said the need for more data in the context of the low-carbon economy transition was "exceptional" given the scale of the issue.
"I think we really need to do a better job of thinking through ideally what [these needs] are, and in the context of limited resources, what can we all begin to build on," she said.
Beyond data, Gattinger also pointed to the need for a political "decision-making framework" that would help local communities and groups get more involved with their own low-carbon transitions, which she said her institute had seen a significant “appetite” for at the municipal level.
Statistics agency looking to publish more green data
In addition to the agency’s environmental statistics program that produces the Canadian System of Environmental-Economic Accounts, which processes GDP (economic growth) numbers to figure out how much energy use, for example, is embedded in commodity numbers, the agency has recently been pushing “the development of additional products,” said Peterson.
For the past year or so, the agency has been examining how to calculate the impact of clean technology, which Peterson noted doesn’t fall neatly into pre-existing industrial or technological categories.
To that end, the agency has been “tweaking” its survey of environmental goods and services, he said, to “identify and target clean technologies” and another survey to measure the use of those goods.
In 2015, Canadian firms sold over $3.4 billion "environmental and clean technology goods" manufactured domestically, and related services sales accounted for almost $3.8 billion, Statistics Canada reported Oct. 30.
Ultimately the goal is to produce an environmental account, said Peterson, that can reveal the contribution that clean technology makes to the existing national accounting framework.
He said the agency was also in the "very early stages" of figuring out how to collect data on the secondary effects of what a low-carbon economy will do to society: things like the health of the labour market, the health of Canadians, whether the proper skill sets are being developed, and what people's attitudes are as the economy transitions.
"This is the range of things that we want to try and take a look at it," he said.