Bill C-12: Boring the Hard Boards of Canadian Climate Politics

There are few issues more contentious in a country whose climate change policy activists are as vociferous as its fossil fuel industry advocates. The Trudeau government has tabled legislation that attempts to thread the needle.

Dan Woynillowicz

November 20, 2020

When it comes to the global effort to combat climate change, Canada has never met an ambitious pollution reduction target it didn’t want to adopt. That’s a good thing insofar as we are a significant contributor to the problem, whether you look at our cumulative pollution over the past century or the amount we emit today to generate a dollar of GDP. The trouble is, we’re far better at setting ambitious targets than we are at meeting them.

In an attempt to remedy this embarrassing track record, the federal government introduced new legislation this week, the Canadian Net Zero Emissions Accountability Act, as promised in its platform for the 2019 election. The new law, if passed, cements the ultimate target of net zero emissions by 2050 and a process to achieve it, requiring the Minister of Environment and Climate Change to set rolling five-year emissions-reduction targets, deliver plans to reach each one, and report on progress along the way. A new Net Zero Advisory Body would be established to provide advice, and the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development would conduct independent, third-party review.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s likely because a not-dissimilar bill—the Climate Change Accountability Act—was put forward by the federal NDP and passed in the House of Commons a decade ago during Stephen Harper’s second minority government. If it’s not familiar, well, that may be because the bill had the dubious honour of being the first killed by unelected Conservative Senators wielding a new, near-majority in the Senate.

In the intervening years, Prime Minister Harper withdrew Canada from the Kyoto Protocol, whose 2012 target we were destined to fail on, and then committed Canada to a 2020 target — also now missed — under the Copenhagen Accord. So perhaps it’s little wonder that expectations were high for this latest incarnation of climate accountability legislation.

If you scan the headlines, you’ll quickly find that many environmental groups and academics were disappointed by this legislation and are clamouring for amendments — a distinct possibility in a minority situation — to strengthen it. While there are a variety of criticisms, the most common is the fact that the first target — and, it is believed, any real accountability — is for 2030, with five-year targets to follow out to 2050.

What about 2025?

Where is the 2025 target against which this government might be held accountable in 2023 (the legislation requires a progress report to be published two years prior to the target date), within this mandate and prior to the next scheduled election?

It’s a legitimate critique that, in principle, makes good sense. But practically speaking, it risks at minimum diluting if not derailing efforts to develop a plan and, critically, implement new regulations and programs aimed at achieving our 2030 Paris Agreement target.

But to what end? The very act — and process — of establishing a target for 2025 and developing a plan to hit it would almost certainly chew through at least a couple of years, leaving scant time to actually do anything to achieve it (the reality being that it takes years to pass laws, develop and implement regulations). Suddenly, the ambition of the 2025 target and rigour of the plan to achieve it would become the new litmus test for whether the government is serious about climate action. Political capital would be expended trying to simultaneously raise ambition and manage expectations. Countless hours would be spent by advocates pushing harder, and business-as-usual incumbents resisting. Premiers would be gnashing teeth and tensions would flare.

We would find ourselves, once again, stuck in the trap of focusing too much time and effort on targets and plans, and too little on developing and implementing the laws, regulations, policies and programs needed to start reducing pollution as soon as possible. The reality, whether we like it or not, is that there is only so much time — in departments, ministers’ offices, and for stakeholders alike — and political capital available.

Back to the bill itself, it does offer some accountability well in advance of 2030. It prescribes that the Commissioner of the Environment & Sustainable Development “must, at least once every five years, examine and report on the Government of Canada’s implementation of the measures aimed at mitigating climate change, including those undertaken to achieve its most recent greenhouse gas emissions target as identified in the relevant assessment report.” The first such report would land around 2025 and could well arrive even sooner. Further, Canada is obliged under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to submit a biennial report on climate action progress relative to our 2030 target by the end of 2021. And the government submits annual national inventory reports. For those interested in evaluating progress, apprising Canadians of it, and holding government to account, there is no real shortage of opportunities or information to do so.

Why not adopt the UK’s approach?

The other main critique is that Canada’s approach to accountability is neither as sophisticated nor as elegant as that in place in the UK. In 2008, the UK government passed the Climate Change Act, the first law anywhere to set legally binding emission reduction targets. It, too, sets interim reduction targets, but notably relies on an innovative accounting approach, allocating “carbon budgets” in five-year increments out to 2050.

Perhaps we’ll get there, someday, but it’s understandable we’re not quite there yet. In the UK, there’s a consensus across the political spectrum on the imperative to address climate change. It may have been a Labour-led government that put the UK in the vanguard of climate accountability in 2008, but that framework has been sustained and supported over the last decade of Conservative rule.

It’s a Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who has ratcheted up the UK’s 2050 ambition to net zero emissions and this week laid out a 10-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution that will see combustion engine vehicle sales banned by 2030 and billions invested in offshore wind, hydrogen and home retrofits.

This ambition and effort stands in stark contrast with Canadian Conservatives, who campaigned in 2019 on a climate “plan” that experts assessed would lead to an increase in carbon pollution between 2020 and 2030. It remains to be seen exactly how the party’s new leader, Erin O’Toole, will position the party — and we may get some hint at that in their response to this legislation — but if the recent leadership race is evidence, climate action still appears to be something they aim to avoid versus embrace.

As a Westminster system with devolved administrations, the UK and its approach to climate accountability is a good model for Canada, and something we can aspire to emulate more closely over time. To grade the federal government’s efforts against the UK, though, is to grade on a curve. Perhaps it’s only fair to assess the federal government’s efforts within the context of our domestic politics as they are — not as we might wish them to be — and to continue to work to shift our politics. This legislation, after all, is not fixed for all time — it can be built upon and improved over time.

Ultimately, all of this also needs to be considered within the context of the broad sweep of things that need to be done to make progress on climate change. As Anna Kenduth of the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices noted, “While accountability frameworks can help, they are not silver bullets. Implementing climate policy is hard, and a new law won’t change that. But this legislation can set the foundation for strong policy.”

Sociologist Max Weber wrote, “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.” This is most certainly true when it comes to the politics of climate change and the associated debate about climate accountability, which is heavy on passion but lacking in perspective.

Some might suggest that accepting the Canadian Net Zero Emissions Accountability Act as it stands is misguided cheerleading or an unreasonable lowering of the bar. But having observed and engaged in nearly two decades of Canadian climate politics, I’m ever more inclined toward pragmatism and practicality — perfect is too often the enemy of good enough. The clock is ticking. There are laws to pass and regulations to be designed and implemented. There’s a post-COVID19 recovery plan to craft and align with our climate ambitions. We can ill afford to be distracted or delayed in doing the real work of cutting carbon pollution.

Dan Woynillowicz is the Principal of Polaris Strategy + Insight, a public policy consulting firm focused on climate change and the energy transition.