For anyone who cares about Canada’s role in combatting climate change, this week’s down-to-the-wire passage of the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act should be cause for relief, if not celebration.
Had Bill C-12 died before Parliament is dissolved for a federal election, which was a distinct possibility, even though the legislation was introduced last year, it would have marked a major setback for this country’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint – a sign of poor prioritization, an inability to get past partisan wrangling, or both.
As it is, particularly after amendments to get NDP and Bloc Québécois support, it marks a decent start to the implementation of mechanisms that should make Canadian climate policies more consistent and transparent. And it helps keep pace with other jurisdictions making similar moves to enshrine emission-reduction targets in law, including the European Union, which did so this week.
But that’s just what it should be considered – a start. For Canada to really have in place a system that holds the government of the day to account, whatever its partisan stripe, shortcomings in C-12 – particularly when it comes to independent oversight – will likely need to be fixed by the next Parliament.
What the new law mostly does, for now, is enshrine process around emission-reduction commitments. The environment minister is to present targets for milestones every five years, along with key measures to meet them and have Canada on track for net-zero emissions by 2050. He or she then has to produce progress reports along the way and assessment reports after the milestone years.
The amendments fixed the bill’s most glaring weakness when it was introduced, which was that there would be no real markers for almost a decade, until the first milestone year of 2030, when the target will be at least a 40-per-cent reduction from 2005 levels, based on the current government’s most recent public statements.
Now, an interim target for 2026 also has to be set. The revised legislation also requires more frequent progress reports, along with reporting of emission-reduction agreements with the provinces. And its other improvements include stronger provisions for Indigenous participation and rights.
As in its initial form, the law also features at least one measure beyond what other countries have done: an annual report, to be presented by the finance minister, detailing how the federal government is managing its climate-related financial risks.
What the law doesn’t do, yet, is ensure the monitoring of future governments’ climate plans in the manner of the best existing climate-accountability laws: with the establishment of an authoritative body outside government that commands public attention.
The model for that approach is Britain’s Climate Change Committee, which last week provided an example of its worth in an annual public report. It provided a detailed assessment of how Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decarbonization policies are falling short of his lofty rhetoric and goal-setting, especially when it comes to emissions from transportation and buildings, and included more than 200 recommendations for how to fill the gaps. The committee’s leaders pulled no punches, framing the report in the kind of language that’s difficult for politicians or anyone else to ignore, going so far as to say that despite progress on some fronts Britain still lacks “a coherent plan to reduce emissions in the critical decade ahead.”
The watchdog’s value isn’t just in any immediate policy pressure or response. Although Mr. Johnson’s government did push back somewhat against the criticism, the committee’s authoritative, non-partisan assessments since it was created in 2008 seem to have contributed – along with other aspects of Britain’s accountability law – to climate policy being less politicized than in Canada and much more consistent regardless of who is in office. (The committee itself was established under a Labour government but has remained well-resourced through Conservative ones.)
What Ottawa has instead opted for is a vaguer and more diffuse approach to outside guidance. It seems to be split between an independent net-zero advisory body established by Bill C-12, which is to provide the environment minister advice with few requirements for public reporting, and the Institute for Climate Choices, a publicly funded but independent think tank. Both have very qualified climate experts involved, and they may take initiative to hold the government to account, but neither has a legislated mandate to do so that could put them beyond political reproach.
There’s no guarantee that a Canadian version of the Climate Change Committee would be able to transcend partisanship. After the government announced appointees to the new advisory body (before the legislation passed), the opposition Conservatives cited the climate activism of some of its members as reason to oppose the entire bill, despite a couple of other appointees who have ties to an oil and gas sector the Tories claimed was being neglected. It’s possible they would treat an agency with more teeth with even greater skepticism.
But the more it demonstrated a willingness to hold the government to account, the harder it would be for other parties to dismiss it if they took office.
There are other ways, too, that the new law would benefit from Ottawa taking another run at it soon. The most significant of those would involve borrowing again from Britain (and others) by not only setting milestone targets but also carbon budgets with total permissible emissions over multiyear periods. That’s a way of discouraging governments from backloading their reduction efforts and allowing more cumulative emissions than necessary along the way.
None of this room for improvement would have been good reason to further delay making the bill law.
Canada has been grasping for some measure of accountability on climate promises for decades, and it’s now much closer to that than ever before.
In a crucial decade for the future of the planet, not to mention for positioning Canada to compete in a decarbonizing world, it’s too late to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
But hopefully this will one day be viewed as the moment at which government began to get more serious about holding itself responsible for meeting those stakes, not the furthest it proved willing to go.
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