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Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau plants a tree with his sons Hadrien (right) and Xavier at the Frink Conservation Area in Plainfield, Ont. on Sunday, October 6, 2019.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The federal government has made climate change a priority by promising to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, put a price on pollution, plant two billion trees and help Canadians manage the risk of natural disasters such as flooding.

But interviews with more than a dozen researchers, and current and former government officials, plus scores of government records, point to the same conclusion: To keep its green promises, the federal government needs better numbers.

Consider greenhouse gas emissions, the primary cause of climate change and a measure the Liberals have promised to bring down dramatically. National GHG emissions are published every April by Environment Canada – with a 16-month lag. That means the country is always a year and a half behind in understanding how carbon-intensive the economy is. That’s a serious delay in a world where policy and technology are changing by the month.

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The lag time in reporting greenhouse gases prevents the public from being able to assess how government policies such as the carbon tax are working, argues John D. Reid, past president of the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society.

“Climate change is supposedly a top priority, but the latest data on national GHG emissions is for 2017,” Dr. Reid says. “How will we to hold the government accountable for the effectiveness of climate change policy … without timely data?"

Not all countries are so slow to produce emissions numbers. In the Netherlands, national annual stats on GHG emissions are produced with a nine-month lag. Australia publishes emissions data on a quarterly basis, five months after the end of the relevant quarter.

Canada’s figures, when they do come out, can be frustratingly general. Dave Sawyer, an Ottawa-based environmental economist, says we lack detailed data on the emission intensity of specific sectors such as steel. That leaves policy makers guessing about the consequences of environmental rules such as a partial carbon-tax exemption for productive factories.

“We can’t say very much about which policies are driving emissions,” Mr. Sawyer says. “So it’s really hard to understand where there are opportunities to strengthen, remove or adjust policy.”

The behaviour of small emitters is also something of a mystery in Canada. In particular, no one knows how far Canadians drive every year and about a quarter of the country’s greenhouse gases come from transportation.

That used to be tracked. Statistics Canada and, later, Transport Canada once placed sensors in a sample of vehicles to track their mileage and other driving habits, but the last of those programs was cancelled in 2016 for budget reasons. Meanwhile, Environment and Climate Change Canada uses data from a 2013 study on kilometres driven between vehicle inspections in Ontario and B.C. to estimate contemporary driving distances.

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Some researchers would like to see the trackers reinstated. Knowing more about driving habits would help us monitor the effects of policies such as the carbon tax (has it made people drive less?) and see which regions are more or less attached to their cars. For a government that sees encouraging the use of public transit and other green forms of transportation as part of its fight against climate change, the rationale seems clear, says Allison Ashcroft, managing director of the Canadian Urban Sustainability Practitioners.

“It could be reinstated tomorrow with little effort and investment,” she says of the driving data loggers. “The gap for this data is well-recognized, and the need is so clear."

In the dark: The cost of Canada’s data deficit

The bottom line is that Canada needs better environmental data across the board, says Wayne Smith, Statscan’s former chief statistician. Instead, the country’s green data have been moving “backward rather than forward,” he argues. “What environmental statistics we have today are far from comprehensive, completely unintegrated, irregular and normally published by policy departments.”

A census of the environment could theoretically solve some of these problems – an idea researchers and even Statscan itself have entertained. Cameron Mack, executive director of Wildlife Habitat Canada, says this type of census would take stock of the country’s environmental health and give a clearer picture not only of ecological health, but of the value of “natural capital” such as wetlands that support biodiversity, improve water quality and help control floods. Statscan has produced a white paper on this idea and says it is “currently working on examining the feasibility of this proposal.”

Environment and Climate Change Canada said in an e-mailed statement it is “not aware of plans” to carry out a census of the environment, nor does it have plans to change the timing of its annual GHG inventory report. The department said it “makes every effort to respect timelines and ensure credibility of data.”

The Liberals made some progress on environmental data in their previous term. New or improved numbers have become available in areas such as electric vehicles, plastic waste and GHG emissions by province.

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But the government is still in the dark on some of its own flagship environmental commitments. One of the government’s 19 biodiversity targets is to reduce or maintain healthy levels of pollution in Canadian waters by 2020. But in a report last year, the Auditor-General found that the government had completely excluded oceans from its assessment – a rather large omission considering Canada is bordered by three of them.

“We have pointed out that the indicators are too narrow to be effective,” says Andrew Hayes, the deputy auditor-general.

One obstacle to better numbers is that the departments responsible for climate progress are often charged with collecting the relevant data, creating a potential conflict of interest.

Mr. Smith says Canada needs an independent body to publish regular, comprehensive statistics on the state of the country’s environment, the way Statscan publishes GDP and employment figures – a practice that “has made it impossible for governments to disguise or ignore economic conditions.”

In the meantime, our understanding of the environment and its risks remains patchy and fragmented. For example, while climate change is likely to cause more flooding – both from rising sea levels and more rain – Canada as a whole is flying blind about where floods are most likely to hit. That’s because, though the federal government can measure extreme weather, it currently has no authority to issue flood warnings.

Since rivers produce most Canadian floods, and the provinces have constitutional authority over rivers, the provinces also have sole responsibility for flood warnings affecting their territory. That’s a problem for two reasons, argues John Pomeroy, a Canada Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Saskatchewan.

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First, floods don’t care about provincial boundaries and indeed frequently spill across the borders between, say, Alberta and Saskatchewan or Ontario and Quebec. Second, some provinces have better computer models and larger staffs devoted to predicting floods.

“In some provinces, like Alberta and Quebec, they have large teams. In others, they barely have anyone,” Dr. Pomeroy says.

This summer, the federal government announced $90-million in funding to improve water-monitoring services, in part to help provinces improve flood projections. But Dr. Pomeroy would like to see a federally co-ordinated flood-forecasting service in Canada, such as what they have in the United States, to further level the playing field on such an important public safety issue.

“We aren’t giving enough warning to Canadians to get out of harm’s way,” he says.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect name for the conservation area.

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