Environmental data lacking: StatsCan

The forecast from Statistics Canada about its environmental data is cloudy with a chance it’s not always up to snuff.

OTTAWA — The forecast from Statistics Canada about its environmental data is cloudy with a chance it’s not always up to snuff.

A new report says the agency’s environmental statistics aren’t nearly as timely or accurate as its social and economic data.

And the “largely ad hoc” way Statistics Canada gathers this data has given policy makers in Ottawa only a smattering of information to work with.

“Such an approach has produced a patchwork of environmental statistics,” the report says.

“Some parts of the patchwork are of good quality and reported regularly, others less so. Other parts are missing altogether.”

Some policies may be served “reasonably well” by this approach, the report adds, “but in no way do existing statistics form a unified system of broad policy relevance.”

“As a result, the overall quality of environmental statistics has suffered, frequently lacking one or more of the standard attributes of high quality statistics: relevance, accuracy, timeliness, accessibility, interpretability and coherence.”

The Canadian Press obtained the October 2009 report under the Access to Information Act. Canada has given the document to the statistical arm of the United Nations.

As an example of spotty statistics, the report cites Canada’s greenhouse-gas inventory. That information is already two years old when Environment Canada gives it to the UN.

Similar information from Statistics Canada is even more stale — it’s four years out of date. And the report says the agency’s emissions data don’t jibe with the greenhouse-gas inventory.

Separate statistics on fresh water, air quality and greenhouse gases are already two years old by the time they’re published by Environment Canada, Health Canada and Statistics Canada.

Meanwhile, a public registry of pollutants lists only a portion of emissions from industry. And catch statistics for the lobster fishery are often late — if they come in at all.

“They fail in some cases to properly capture all required variables needed to explain a particular issue,” the report says of the relevance and comprehensiveness of Statistics Canada’s environmental data.

“They fail in others to measure important variables related to a particular issue.”

The senior official who wrote the report says collecting environmental data is a problem for agencies around the world, not just for Statistics Canada.

Robert Smith, head of the agency’s environment accounts and statistics division, says he wrote the report to show that the lack of a so-called “framework” for environmental data is the root of the problem.

“The data that we do collect are as accurate as we can possibly make them,” he said.

“StatsCan is recognized around the world for having one of the best environmental programs around, and I’m quite proud of that record and, yeah, I would stand behind our numbers any day of the week.

“They’re very good statistics. There’s no question about them.”

Smith added the accuracy of Statistics Canada’s data is much less of a problem than its comprehensiveness, timeliness and coherence.

University of Alberta professor Subhash Lele is an expert in environmental and ecological statistics. He says it’s widely recognized in his field that environmental statistics lag behind other data.

“It is hard to measure many of the phenomena that we have,” said Lele, who sits on the editorial board of the journal Environmental and Ecological Statistics.

“It is inherently less accurate,” he added, and so people who do use environmental data make allowances for statistical shortcomings.

The reliability of Statistics Canada data has become an unlikely political flash point this summer after a decision by the Conservative government to end the mandatory long-form census in favour of a voluntary survey.

The former head of the agency, Munir Sheikh, quit last month after advising the government a voluntary survey would not be as useful as the mandatory form.