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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau makes an announcement at the Ornamental Gardens in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Trudeau government tabled a bill on Thursday that, if enacted, would legally bind Canada to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

On the surface, a law that requires Ottawa to set reduction targets every five years leading up to 2050, and to regularly report to Parliament about its progress, isn’t a bad idea.

But we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s talk about how the proposed law allows Team Trudeau to avoid the very accountability and transparency it intends to impose on future governments.

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Under Bill C-12, the year 2025 doesn’t exist. The first so-called “milestone year” for reporting is 2030, followed by 2035, 2040, 2045 and 2050. As well, mandated progress reports are only due two years prior to the next milestone year.

Thus, when the bill is enacted, the Trudeau government will have six months to set Ottawa’s greenhouse gas emissions target for 2030, and to lay out a plan for achieving it.

And then it will never be accountable for those goals, because the first time a progress report will be due won’t be until 2028. That’s at least two federal governments away from the one that just tabled what it calls an “accountability act.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused three times on Thursday to answer reporters’ questions about why the first milestone year is 2030 and not 2025, but he didn’t need to. Making 2025 the first milestone would have meant his government had to present Parliament with a progress report in 2023 – an election year.

Imposing accountability on future governments while giving your own a mulligan is a crass political calculation. It undermines Mr. Trudeau’s contention that fighting climate change ought to be a non-partisan effort.

But that still leaves the question of whether Bill C-12 will actually help Canada reach net-zero GHG emissions in 2050. And the answer is, it can’t hurt.

Requiring governments to set targets every five years, and to lay out their chosen strategies and policies for achieving them, is necessary. The reporting requirement would also allow Canadians to track whether progress was being made.

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The law doesn’t impose sanctions on governments that fail to meet their goals. In fact, it foresees the possibility that some will indeed fall short.

But then, the only real accountability for democratic governments comes from voters, at the ballot box. The reporting requirements in the law would presumably arm voters with the information needed to toss out future laggard administrations as 2050 approaches, should the mood take them.

Another key test of the law is whether it would force governments to choose the smartest and most cost-effective strategies for cutting emissions.

The bill enjoins Ottawa to “take into account the best scientific information available,” and creates an expert body to provide advice to the environment minister of the day. That’s a good start.

But if there were a surefire way of legislating governments out of making bad decisions, someone would have come up with it a long time ago.

Having a legal framework for creating targets and coming up with smart policies can only do so much. There are a lot of bad ideas out there for fighting climate change.

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Ontario used the excuse of climate change to try to turn itself into a wind- and solar-powered green-energy manufacturing giant under former premier Dalton McGuinty, an effort at industrial policy in the name of environmentalism that proved to be a costly fiasco.

And Quebec announced Monday that it is going to meet its emission goals by spending billions of dollars subsidizing the purchase of electric passenger cars – a costly gambit that benefits people who can afford to buy cars at the expense of such things as greening mass-transit vehicles or building more subways.

The thing that will really matter over the next 30 years is whether or not Ottawa and the provinces bring in intelligent, cost-efficient ways of reducing emissions that don’t harm the economy.

The federal carbon tax is an example of good policy. So are Alberta’s efforts to cut GHG emissions in the oil sands.

If Bill C-12 puts serious, apolitical experts at the centre of Ottawa’s decision-making about climate change, and they steer the government away from flavour-of-the-month solutions, that alone could make it worthwhile.

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