Canada has passed a law to reduce emissions and waste from its operations, after rejecting a bid to link public servant pay to meeting environmental targets.

Bill C-57, which for the first time requires federal departments and agencies to meet specific goals under a government-wide sustainable development strategy, became law late on Thursday after a months-long debate over an amendment to tie employment contracts to those goals.

The debate split both houses of Parliament, with the Liberal government saying the amendment would be a bad fit for the bill and that the Treasury Board Secretariat, a central government department that controls the flow of money, already puts similar clauses into contracts.

On the other side, critics say the amendment gives the law greater across-government accountability.

“They said they’re already doing it – you could say ‘what would have been the harm?’”Prince Edward Island Senator Diane Griffin, who sponsored C-57 in the Senate, said after it passed.

C-57 is intended as a major fix of the Federal Sustainable Development Act, an 11-year-old law that has been described as falling far short of expectations by a parliamentary committee and Canada’s federal environment watchdog.

Aide to Canada's @ec_minister @cathmckenna says tying green targets to employment contracts is problematic because sustainable development goals extend across government, while gov says they're included anyway. So why not make it law, critics ask.

The federal government is expected to create three-year long sustainable development strategies under the act, but few government departments and agencies follow through on making sure actions are taken to meet the strategies, multiple reports have found.

The act’s draft strategy for 2019-2022 includes goals to reduce federal greenhouse gas emissions 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, divert 75 per cent of non-hazardous waste from landfills by 2030, make 80 per cent of vehicles emission-free by 2030 and purchase all electricity from clean sources by 2025.

C-57 could do more, watchdog says

Environment and sustainable development commissioner Julie Gelfand, whose office audits federal environmental politics, told a Senate committee in November that C-57 made some improvements but that it would mean sustainability provisions would be removed from procurement contracts.

The act should be amended to allow for those same provisions to be inserted in employment arrangements as well as procurement deals, Gelfand said.

Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson proposed an amendment to do so in December but the government pushed back, arguing it should retain the discretion to insert those conditions in contracts.

Tying targets directly to employment contracts is problematic because the sustainable development strategy’s goals extend across government, Sean Fraser, the parliamentary secretary to Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna, told the House of Commons Dec. 6.

“It is not always the case that one department or one individual has complete responsibility for meeting the federal sustainable development strategy’s targets,” Fraser said.

"Now there's accountability"

The Senate voted to approve C-57 without Patterson’s amendment Feb. 28, allowing the bill to become law later that day.

On top of putting specific targets into the sustainable development strategy, C-57 will also give members of Parliament more power to scrutinize progress, Minister McKenna said March 1 in a statement.

“Canada is an environmental leader, and that leadership starts at home,” McKenna said in the news release.

The number of federal bodies covered by the Federal Sustainable Development Act will rise from 26 to 90 thanks to the bill, the release said.

Griffin, the Senate sponsor of the bill, said C-57 will strengthen the current law despite not including the employment contract amendment.

“It requires measurable objectives – that was not something departments were required to do previously,” Griffin said. “Now there’s accountability.”

As well, a sustainable development advisory committee housed in Environment and Climate Change Canada now has the power to trigger its own studies instead of only being able to do so at the minister’s request, Griffin said.

Government procurement represents 33 per cent of Ottawa’s expenditures and 13 per cent of Canada’s GDP, which makes it a powerful tool to reduce environmental impacts across the economy, research and advocacy group Clean Energy Canada said in a 2017 report.

This article was updated on March 5, 2019 to correct the first name of Diane Griffin, the Senate sponsor of the bill.

James Munson is a freelance journalist who has written on the environment for over a decade. He can be reached at [email protected]