Ottawa fails on climate legislation. Again

The federal government tabled its long-awaited climate legislation in the House of Commons last week. Bill C-12 places legal obligations on the environment minister to set greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for the years 2030, 2035, 2040 and 2045, with the ultimate goal of achieving a net-zero carbon Canadian economy by 2050.

The minister will consider the advice of a new independent advisory body in developing plans to meet those targets. And the minister will report regularly on the government’s progress.

And that’s it. That’s essentially the whole bill.

It is not an emissions reduction plan (that will come later). It is not a binding commitment to meet the government’s climate targets (there is no enforcement mechanism). And it is not an all-of-government strategy — provinces, territories, municipalities, Indigenous governments and even other federal ministries are not covered.

No, rather than the kind of sweeping and binding legislation that could have jump-started a transformative Canadian climate agenda, Bill C-12 is instead a narrow and largely uninteresting piece of legislation that formalizes the federal government’s existing approach to managing climate policy.

To be clear, requiring the government to set, monitor and report on greenhouse gas emission targets is not a bad thing. Greater transparency and timeliness in developing federal policy is certainly welcome.

However those are functions we would expect the environment minister to perform with or without legislation. Indeed, the federal Environment Ministry has been setting climate targets and publishing climate plans — not to mention reporting on their inevitable failure — for nearly 30 years.

There is nothing in this new bill that makes the achievement of Canada’s targets for 2030 and beyond any more likely than the target we missed in 2012 (Kyoto Protocol) or the one we are certain to miss by the end of 2020 (Copenhagen Accord).

And while this new bill is unlikely to hinder future climate policy development, it does introduce or exacerbate some risks.

First, the bill’s failure to require a new emissions reduction target before 2030 means the federal government can continue delaying the kinds of transformational climate policies we require to meet the scale of the climate change threat. A new 2025 target would have put real pressure onto the current government rather than shirking responsibility to a future one.

Second, the bill’s narrow scope means the environment minister has no new leverage to achieve pan-Canadian collaboration. Without any ability to compel co-operation from the provinces, which control critical areas of climate policy such as energy and transportation, the federal government still does not have all the tools it needs to meet its own targets.

Third, the bill’s emphasis on “net-zero” emissions without clarifying how and where emissions are counted leaves the door open to international carbon offsets as an alternative to domestic emissions reductions. Although emissions trading is covered under the Paris Agreement and may serve some role in Canada’s climate plans moving forward, it should not be viewed as an alternative to cutting emissions at home.

The bill may yet be improved. The minority Liberal government tabled Bill C-12 for first reading last week, which means it is still subject to review and revision by Parliament in the coming months. The climate-conscious leaders of the Bloc Québécois, NDP and Green parties will have opportunities to pressure the government in the House and in committee to address these issues.

Nevertheless, Bill C-12 may ultimately be less consequential than the emission reduction plan the federal government has promised to introduce in the next few weeks.

The new plan, which replaces the 2015 Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, will detail how the government intends to meet the current 2030 target while putting Canada on a path to meeting its 2050 target.

If Bill C-12 is much ado about nothing, let’s hope the new emissions plan is something worth celebrating.

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