“Winning slowly on climate is just another way of losing.”
— Bill McKibben, climate writer and co-founder of 350.org
Canadian climate policy is a disheartening trail of unmet targets. Whether committed with sincere intent that was lost in the winds of political change or cynically advanced to give the appearance of action, the results have been the same. Our federal and provincial governments have spent decades making promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) with no discernible effect.
Sometimes, those commitments have been enshrined in law (such as in British Columbia) or ratified in international treaties (such as Kyoto), but no matter. Not one of those promises has been realized. And now, having run out the clock, we face the climate emergency with a huge amount of heavy lifting to do in the next 10 years, a decade that will make or break us.
On Nov. 19, Justin Trudeau’s federal government tabled its long-awaited bill seeking to embed new greenhouse gas reduction targets into law. But sadly, Bill C-12, dubbed the “Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act,” provides virtually nothing in the way of robust accountability. In its current form, it is, in short, a stunning disappointment and desperately in need of amendments to make the bill worthwhile.
The good news is that, with a minority Parliament, the government needs the support of one or more of the NDP and Bloc Québécois to pass C-12 (or it could seek to pass the bill with the aid of the Conservatives, which would speak volumes). That means, as you read this commentary, there exists a very short window of opportunity to strengthen the proposed law and turn it into something that can indeed induce significant climate action.
If you have ever wondered when you might contact your member of Parliament to share your thoughts and hopes and you are concerned about the climate emergency, well, right now would be a very good time.
First, let us note what is worthy in the bill. As the Liberals promised in the 2019 federal election, C-12 would embed in law a commitment that Canada achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2050. And we do, indeed, need that.
"This is a moment for the NDP and Bloc Québécois to use the powers and influence this minority Parliament affords them to demand improvements" to Canada's climate accountability legislation, @SethDKlein writes. #cdnpoli
The problem with previous targets to get to something less than zero is that far too many of us — both individuals and businesses — falsely presume that what we do or plan to do can be made to fit in the remaining emissions envelope. A carbon-zero target disabuses us of this notion. It would also align Canadian policy with what the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says is scientifically necessary.
Of course, that 2050 target is almost 30 years from now, when no one currently in federal politics will still be there, and indeed, a number of them will no longer be with us. Understanding this, during the election, in addition to the 2050 promise, the Liberals also pledged new legally binding five-year milestones to reach that target. Good stuff. C-12 also requires the minister responsible for climate action to produce plans to meet those targets. More good stuff.
Now the bad news. The first of the promised “five-year milestones” proposed in C-12 isn’t, as you might have logically expected, five years from now, but rather, in 2030. Ten years is a lifetime in politics. More importantly, by 2030 we need to have truly bent the curve on our GHG emissions or we’re fried. That’s why the milestones, if they are to meaningfully and accountably track our progress, must start sooner and ideally come more frequently.
In the 2019 election, the Liberals also promised to strengthen the Harper-era 2030 GHG reduction target, which is far too weak and not aligned with what the IPCC says we must do, namely, to at least halve our emissions by 2030. But C-12 merely aspires to vaguely “exceed” Canada’s current and inadequate 2030 target.
Additionally, while there are a number of proposed accountability measures in the bill — mechanisms designed to keep the government on the straight and narrow path — in their current form, they are too weak to give comfort. For example, C-12 requires the minister produce two progress and assessment reports every five years, but the first of these isn’t due until 2028, when there will most certainly be a different minister and may well be a different government.
The proposed act would also establish a federal advisory body, appointed by the minister, to annually track progress and make recommendations. The federal commissioner of the environment would also be tasked with producing assessment reports, but only once every five years, and that position answers to the minister. (Unlike the auditor general or parliamentary budget officer, it is not an independent office of Parliament.)
Given the above, here are amendments that would strengthen C-12 and transform it into a worthy bill:
- Make the first milestone target 2025 (not 2030). Better yet, establish rolling three-year carbon budgets (just as we have rolling three-year fiscal budgets) that diminish over time to ensure we hit the newly ambitious 2030 and 2050 targets we embed in law.
- Make the federal commissioner of the environment a truly independent officer of Parliament — or establish a new parliamentary carbon budget officer — and charge them with producing annual reports that hold the government to account.
- Ensure that the new advisory body established by the act does not include representatives of fossil fuel companies. MP Laurel Collins, the NDP critic for environment and climate, has urged such an amendment, while the Conservatives have called for the opposite — an amendment that would require the advisory body to include fossil fuel corporate representatives. It has been common with such bodies (such as the B.C. government’s current Climate Solutions Advisory Council) to include executives from fossil fuel corporations. Our governments have been keen to have climate plans these companies will endorse. But the hour is much too late to be seeking approval from business interests that have done everything in their power to discourage and delay climate action, and which must now be managed for wind-down. If our governmental climate plans aren’t making the members of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers deeply anxious, then they aren’t climate plans worth having.
As 350.org has proposed, the bill should also commit that our climate plans will be developed in a manner consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and that the targets will be met while providing a federal “good jobs guarantee” to those whose livelihoods are impacted (thus far, the government’s other election promise of a Just Transition Act remains missing in action).
Collins has been pressing for many of the above amendments. And the Greens have made clear that they will not support the bill without major changes (but their three votes are not enough to force changes).
The draft bill will be going to committee, where amendments could be made, late this month or early February. This is a moment for the NDP and Bloc to use the powers and influence this minority Parliament affords them to demand improvements to C-12. And Liberal MPs who ran on climate need to make their voices heard. They need to exercise their political muscle, as this bill in its current state fails to reflect the urgency of the climate emergency. And all of us who want real climate accountability need to make sure all MPs know how we feel.
Seth Klein is an adjunct professor with Simon Fraser University’s urban studies program and the former B.C. director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. His book, 'A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency,' was published in September.