Momentum for Canadian climate accountability legislation is beginning to build, with campaigners laying out five pillars for a federal accountability act, a national think tank arguing the benefits of legislated milestones, and a CBC News analysis laying out how such a law might work in practice.
On CBC, Parliamentary reporter Aaron Wherry was out last week with a look at the legally-binding carbon reduction targets the Liberal Party platform promised in last fall’s federal election. The promise came after what Wherry adds up as nine national climate targets over the last 32 years—none of which the country actually met. So legislating the commitment “surely couldn’t hurt,” he writes, “even if it’s still going to take more than a law to ensure Canada does its fair share to combat climate change.”
During the campaign, the Trudeau Liberals promised to set “legally-binding” targets for 2030 and 2050, informed by input from scientists, economists, and other experts. Eight months and what feels like a century later, “a timeline for legislation depends on when the government decides to turn its attention to matters unrelated to the pandemic,” Wherry notes. But there are already two possible roadmaps on offer: one from a coalition of environmental groups, the other from the new Canadian Institute for Climate Choices (CICC).
The environmental groups, including Climate Action Network-Canada (CAN-Rac), West Coast Environmental Law, Équiterre, Environmental Defence, and the Pembina Institute, lay out five pillars for a climate accountability act that delivers real-world carbon cuts. “We want our government to not just commit to doing its part to fight climate change, but also to deliver on that commitment,” they write. The pillars include:
- Ambitious carbon reduction targets that move Canada toward its fair-share commitment to a 1.5°C limit on average global warming;
- Five-year carbon budgets that cap greenhouse gas emissions and distribute emission reductions fairly across the country;
- Five-year impact reports to Parliament;
- Planning and reporting requirements for carbon reductions and climate adaptation;
- An arm’s length expert advisory committee to advise on targets and carbon budgets and independently monitor progress.
In a report earlier this month, the CICC reviews past experience with climate accountability frameworks, acknowledges that long-term targets are tough to achieve, but still argues for accountability measures to clarify pathways and progress in the right direction.
“Accountability frameworks are not a silver bullet,” the institute states. “They cannot guarantee that a jurisdiction achieves its long-term climate objectives (since they cannot bind the actions of future, democratically-elected governments). Nor can they sweep aside the complexity of implementing climate policies across multiple orders of government.”
But “climate accountability frameworks could help Canada to achieve its 2030 and 2050 climate targets. International and domestic experience shows that the transparency and accountability they provide can play an important role in keeping governments on track. If designed well, a national accountability framework could create institutional incentives for coordination and alignment between different orders of government.”
On CBC, Wherry recaps the experience with similar climate legislation in British Columbia and Manitoba—and in the UK, which has emerged as a world model for climate accountability rules. Based on the CAN-Rac and CICC reports, “long-term climate targets would be written into law and clear lines of responsibility for ministers would be established,” he writes. “Neither proposal imagines specific consequences for failing to meet a target—but both would require the government to report regularly on progress toward reducing Canada’s emissions, with oversight provided by an arms-length body or institution.”
While both reports call for a national carbon budget, Wherry points to the environmental groups’ call for sub-national budgets as a key difference.
“In a perfectly rational world, that might be the smart way to structure climate policy in a federation—with each province accepting its fair share of the national goal,” he notes. But “the Trudeau government consistently has side-stepped questions about regional differences and responsibility by focusing on national policy, like the federal carbon price. It’s hard to imagine the Liberals wanting to engage now in long and painful negotiations to set provincial carbon budgets.”
The other challenge is to ensure that any legislation adopted today survives futures changes in government. “But legislation would be one more significant structural support for climate action that any future government would have to contend with—even if only by repealing it,” Wherry writes.
“Accountability frameworks aren’t silver bullets and won’t automatically solve the disconnect between policy and targets,” said Dale Beugin, the institute’s vice president of research and analysis. “They do, however, add a layer of durability. Just as missing a milestone has reputational and political costs, so too would repealing legislation.”