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Climate Hawks Hail Milestone, Flag Major Gaps in Trudeau Government’s Climate Accountability Bill

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  • Nov 20, 2020

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Canadian climate analysts and advocates are marking a milestone after the Trudeau government tabled its long-awaited climate accountability legislation in the House of Commons yesterday, while raising flags about major shortcomings in the bill.

The Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act “would legally bind the government to set multiple targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next 30 years, but the only penalty for failing to meet them would be to admit so publicly,” The Canadian Press reports.

“Bill C-12, if passed, would require the federal environment minister to set five-year targets for cutting carbon emissions starting in 2030, and ending in 2050, when Canada is supposed to hit net-zero,” the news agency adds. But it will be “more than a decade” before Ottawa is required to report progress toward those goals, and the bill contains “no plans to set any new targets before 2030”.

The legislation “delivers on a promise we made to Canadians during the last election to provide a legally binding process for this government and for all future governments to set national targets and to bring forward climate plans on a rolling basis every five years between 2030 and 2050,” Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told media yesterday. “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,” he added.

“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government still intends to live up to its commitment to exceed the current targets by 2030, but the legislation would not require an actual number—or a plan to get there—until at least six months after it becomes law,” CP explains. “For the remaining targets and plans for 2035, 2040, 2045, they have to be made public at least five years in advance of the goal.”

The bill “would also establish an expert advisory panel and empower the [federal] 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,” the Globe and Mail writes. “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 will have to explain why, and how the failure will be addressed.”

That frame leaves out the all-important enforcement mechanisms that climate hawks have been urging for months. “Ultimately, the accountability for government’s actions or inactions is from Canadians themselves,” Trudeau said.

Before the legislation was introduced, Politico Canada said the government was planning a separate announcement in the next month to reveal its plan to exceed its current, Harper-era emission reduction target for 2030. “It seems the plan may not actually reveal a new 2030 target just yet. But it should at least give a sense of how the Liberals plan to get to…wherever it is they’re aiming to get to.”

The initial reaction to the climate accountability bill suggested it might face a rough road in a minority parliament, where no single political party holds enough seats to either pass or defeat it. Yesterday’s announcement “was met with skepticism from the opposition parties the government is relying on to pass the bill,” the Globe says. “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 forego a 2025 goal, saying it further pushes off climate action. They also said it needs amendments to build in more accountability.”

The climate community responded with much the same message, with most organizations hailing C-12 as an important marker on the road to climate accountability but stressing the need to strengthen key provisions before the bill becomes law.

“This is a piece of legislation that Climate Action Network Canada and our members and allies have been working toward for many years, and a moment to celebrate in the history of Canada‘s action on climate change and the effort to make sure that climate change is no longer treated as a partisan political football,” CAN-Rac Executive Director Catherine Abreu said in a statement. “With this bill, Canada would enshrine in law a commitment to getting to net-zero emissions by 2050 and embed a role for an expert advisory committee in legislation. This is a big step in the right direction.”

However, there’s “plenty of work to be done as we move through the legislative process to ensure this bill actually holds current as well as future governments accountable for our climate commitments, so that Canada never breaks another climate promise.”

“The introduction of this bill is a significant step forward in tackling the climate crisis,” said Ecojustice, which drove much of the independent analysis leading up to the legislation. “It makes net-zero by 2050 a legally-binding target and starts to map a pathway for Canada to achieve this.”

The legislation “is a significant step to put Canada on the course to achieve its emissions targets, and sets up Canada to become a global leader,” the Toronto-based environmental law charity added. “However, Ecojustice also believes there is room for improvement on issues such as the lack of a 2025 target and robust, independent expert advice.”

“Charting our path to a safe and resilient future requires a coherent framework,” said Pembina Institute Federal Policy Director Isabelle Turcotte. “Today’s bill puts forward key elements of that framework, including five-year national targets, the duty to prepare interim progress and assessment reports, and crucially, the creation of an expert body to provide independent advice. In the coming months, we look forward to enhancing these first steps toward climate accountability with the inclusion of five-year national and subnational carbon budgets, which are essential to planning a safe journey to 2050.”

The predominantly positive tone from most national climate organizations caught some observers off guard, given the gaps in the legislation and the wider menu of climate and green transition promises that have emanated from the government over the last year. CAN-Rac’s Abreu explained that yesterday’s announcement was always supposed to be about the process of climate accountability, not the specifics of climate action.

“There’s a difference between a piece of climate accountability legislation and a new climate plan,” she told The Energy Mix Thursday afternoon. “We weren’t expecting a new climate plan today. We were hoping for accountability legislation, and that’s what we got.”

And that, in itself, was a win, she said. “This is the first time a sitting government has introduced climate legislation in the House of Commons,” almost exactly a decade after a bill introduced by then-NDP leader Jack Layton was “notoriously killed by an unelected Senate”. Bill C-12 sets “timelines and predictability” for the way Canada will set and meet its climate goals, when “so far, that process has happened on an entirely ad hoc basis. So it’s good to see we’re no longer moving in the direction of setting empty climate goals and failing to meet them.”

At the same time, Abreu said Canadian climate hawks have “plenty of work cut out for us through the legislative process to improve this bill, because it’s not there. It’s not the robust piece of legislation we need to make sure Canada never misses another climate target. To make sure it’s set up to drive up ambition, especially in the near term, we need the 2025 goal and a stronger 2030 goal enshrined in law.”

She also stressed the need for enforcement mechanisms to shift a bill that “places the emphasis on the minister’s responsibility to report on climate commitments, rather than achieving climate commitments.”

In a minority Commons, Abreu said she’s optimistic about mustering political support for the amendments Bill C-12 needs. “The NDP has been leading on accountability decade, and we’re expecting them to be champions on improving this bill as it moves through the House,” she told The Mix. “We’ve also seen the Bloc introduce its own accountability bill in recent history, and of course the Green Party has been a constant climate leader in Canadian politics. So I think there’s an opportunity here to work with the parties.”

In the Senate, where a determined fossil fuel caucus worked hard to derail two pieces of climate-related legislation in the last Parliament, Abreu said the debate over C-12 will include “quite a few really progressive senators”—including Sen. Rosa Galvez, who recently released a paper that addressed climate accountability frameworks.

“We’ll have some champions in the Senate, but we’re rolling our sleeves up,” Abreu said. “Today was a big announcement, but we know we have a lot of work cut out with us to work with elected and non-elected officials alike to move it forward.”

While most of the climate community sounded an optimistic note after the legislation was introduced, not everyone had quite the same story.

“The climate accountability legislation introduced today unfortunately has major deficiencies that will, at best, hold future federal governments accountable for Canada’s climate commitments,” said Dale Marshall, national climate program manager at Environmental Defence.

“The proposed legislation currently lacks key elements,” he added, including “legislating five-year incremental targets that will reach our 2050 goal (including the most important one, 2025); having independent experts regularly assess progress towards achieving each target; and ensuring that if Canada is off-track there are immediate consequences, namely government action—not plans.”

He encouraged Parliament to “look at international examples, including in particular the UK, where this type of legislation is already working, and appropriately strengthen this proposed legislation so it instills true accountability and transparency in Canada’s fight against climate change.”

“Like so many of this government’s climate promises, there is a massive gap between their words and the actions they’re ready to take,” 350 Canada added in an email to supporters. “The earliest milestone set in this bill is for 2030, which leaves us without a plan to cut emissions over the critical next decade. It leaves too much room for the fossil fuel industry to get away with expanding. And, it doesn’t include any clear promises for how Canada’s climate accountability lines up with respect for Indigenous rights and the need to create millions of decent, green jobs.”

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