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Commuters drive on the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto on Oct. 10, 2017.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa tabled legislation Thursday that would mandate greenhouse gas emission reduction targets with the goal of reaching net zero by 2050. But with no penalties for missing those targets, the only accountability governments would face is the voters.

The Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act would require the federal government to set targets for 2030 onward. It would also establish an expert advisory panel and empower the environment commissioner to review the government’s work, but it leaves ultimate authority to the environment minister to set targets and lay out the plans to achieve them.

Vancouver moves ahead on climate plan but pumps brakes on downtown tolls

UN climate chief says pledges by big polluters boost Paris hopes

The bill is aimed at ensuring Canada meets its international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – something it has never done.

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“It sends a signal of the depth of our resolve to be a serious competitor in the clean global market place that is emerging today,” Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said.

However, it was met with skepticism from the opposition parties the government is relying on to pass the bill through the minority Parliament. No party committed to supporting the act on Thursday. The Bloc Québécois, NDP and Greens all noted the importance of legislating emissions reduction targets but criticized the decision to forgo a 2025 goal, saying it further pushes off climate action. They also said it needs amendments to build in more accountability.

The Conservatives, who did not meet Canada’s emissions targets when in government, criticized the Liberals for planning for future goals while not yet meeting current ones.

During the 2019 election campaign, the Liberals pledged to set “legally binding, five-year milestones” to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Because 2025 targets were left out, the reduction goals will likely only apply to future governments. Asked to explain the decade wait, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t answer the question. “We will be meeting and exceeding our 2030 targets,” he said.

Achieving net zero means the country would offset all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Britain, Germany and France have made similar pledges. Britain has had legislated targets for years. Cutting emissions is critical not just for the environment but also for the economy, the government says, and the Bank of Canada this week called it an “immediate bottom-line business issue.”

Canada missed its 2012 target under the Kyoto Protocol, and is on track to miss its 2020 goal by about 100 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. Projections show the country is also likely to flub its most recent promise to reduce emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Updated 2030 targets were expected earlier this year, but work was delayed by the pandemic. The new legislation would require Ottawa to set the 2030 goal – and how it plans to get there – within nine months of the act coming into force.

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The bill would require subsequent targets and plans to be released at least five years in advance of 2035, 2040 and 2045, as well as periodic progress reports.

Under the proposed rules, the minister would have to consult with the advisory panel, the provinces and territories, and Indigenous groups to set targets and plans, but the bill ultimately leaves decision making to the government. If a target is missed, the minister would have to to explain why, and how the failure will be addressed.

“Ultimately the accountability for government’s actions or inactions, is from Canadians themselves,” Mr. Trudeau said when asked about the lack of enforcement mechanisms.

The NDP suggested more accountability measures such as giving the environment commissioner more oversight powers, making the commissioner an independent officer of Parliament, and allowing the advisory panel to weigh in on targets and plans to reach them.

“This bill is not good enough,” NDP MP Laurel Collins said Tuesday, while Green Party Leader Annamie Paul called it an “empty shell.”

Catherine Abreu, executive director with Climate Action Network Canada, said the bill risks “backloading all of the work on climate change” and puts too much emphasis “on the minister’s duty to report rather than to achieve our climate commitments.”

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But the legislated timelines will make a difference, said Isabelle Turcotte, with the Pembina Institute. She said the act will help implement structural changes needed to tackle climate change, particularly because it moves Canada “past the vagaries of the election cycle” and provides “much-needed regulatory certainty.”

The act also paves the way for sector-specific directives, which has potential implications for Canada’s largest emitters.

Officials said during a technical briefing Thursday the bill’s regulations could spell out emission-reduction obligations for specific sectors. The oil and gas industry releases more greenhouse gas than any other sector of the Canadian economy, hitting 193 megatonnes in 2018 – more than 26 per cent of the country’s total emissions.

Numerous Canadian oil and gas companies including Cenovus Energy Inc., Enbridge Inc. and Suncor Energy Inc. have pledged to hit net-zero emissions by 2050.

Cenovus told The Globe and Mail in an e-mail that government policy should encourage measures that rein in emissions across the Canadian economy, starting with the lowest-cost reductions first.

“Government policy also needs to be flexible and consider technological and market trends on the pathway to 2050,” it said.

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Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon said in an e-mail his United Conservative government is reviewing the bill to determine what impacts it will have in the province. But, he added, “policies that provide a competitive advantage to foreign competitors or cause further harm” to the energy industry “are not the answer.”

“Many Alberta resource companies have already made net zero commitments, showing they are serious about environmental and economic resilience,” he said.

Ontario’s government noted in a statement that it is keen to see how Ottawa plans to consult with the provinces on the five-year targets. “Ontario is interested in learning what resources the federal government will provide to provinces to help adjust to the sectoral measures and strategies that will be included,” provincial environment minister spokesperson Andrew Buttigieg said.

President-elect Joe Biden says he will rejoin the Paris Agreement, reversing President Trump’s 2017 announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from the international effort to address climate change. Sarah Petrevan from Clean Energy Canada and The Globe’s Adam Radwanski discuss the global implications. Visit tgam.ca/climate-live for the full conversation.

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