Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson tabled new legislation today that would force current and future federal governments to set binding climate targets to get Canada to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The bill, if passed, would require the federal government to set five-year interim emissions reduction targets over the next 30 years to ensure progress toward that ambitious goal.
The legislation, C-12, fulfils a Liberal election promise to be more aggressive at cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and to get Canada to net-zero emissions by 2050.
Reaching “net-zero” by 2050 would mean that emissions produced 30 years from now would be fully absorbed through actions that scrub carbon from the atmosphere — such as planting trees — or technology, such as carbon-capture and storage systems. The Liberals have promised to plant two billion trees.
“Climate change remains one of the greatest challenges of our times,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters Thursday.
“Just like with COVID-19, ignoring the risks of climate change isn’t an option. That approach would only make the costs higher and the long-term consequences worse. Canadians have been clear — they want climate action now.”
Trudeau described the bill as an accountability framework that will “ensure we reach this net-zero goal in a way that gives Canadians confidence.”
Wilkinson’s bill doesn’t set out exactly how the federal government should go about reducing emissions — it does not mandate further increases to the carbon tax, for example. It simply stipulates that Ottawa must set a goal and work to achieve it through measures that are deemed effective.
The legislation calls for the creation of an outside 15-member advisory board — composed of climate experts, scientists and Indigenous representatives, among others — which would provide advice to the minister on setting targets and the best “sectoral strategies” for achieving net-zero. By law, the minister would be obliged to consult with groups before setting targets.
The legislation also requires that the minister table a plan in Parliament outlining how Ottawa plans to meet those targets. The legislation does not stipulate what role the provinces and territories will play in this national emissions reduction plan.
The first emissions reduction target, and the plan to meet it, would be tabled nine months after the bill is passed through Parliament. That first target would be for the year 2030.
Environmental groups celebrated the government’s push to enshrine the net-zero commitment into law — but raised red flags about the plan to make 2030 the first milestone year, saying binding targets should be implemented much sooner than that.
“To be effective, the legislation will need to prioritize immediate climate action by setting a 2025 target, and ensure that all the targets we set are as ambitious as possible. We will be looking to all federal parties in the upcoming weeks to work together to strengthen this bill,” said Andrew Gage, a staff lawyer with West Coast Environment Law.
“This 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. However, Ecojustice also believes that there is room for improvement on issues such as the lack of a 2025 target,” said a spokesperson for the environmental advocacy group.
‘Binding’ — but without penalties
Canada’s target under the Paris Accord is to reduce emissions by 30 per cent compared to 2005 levels by 2030.
Current policies — including the carbon tax, banning coal power plants and regulating methane emissions in the oil and gas industry — will only get Canada about two-thirds of the way there.
While the government describes this legislation as “legally binding,” there would be no tangible penalty applied if the country fails to drive down emissions as promised.
The government would simply have to state publicly in Parliament that it failed to meet its goals. There would be no meaningful legal consequences if Ottawa falls short.
A future government also could simply repeal the law and do away with reporting obligations altogether.
Asked why the government failed to include any penalties to make the targets more meaningful, Trudeau said it will be up to voters to punish governments that fail to hit their marks.
“Ultimately, the accountability for government’s actions or inaction is from Canadians themselves. We live in a democracy. Stephen Harper’s inability to fight climate change responsibility was a big part of him losing power in 2015. Conservatives continue to fight against measures that combat climate change,” Trudeau said.
“The consequences for a government that doesn’t lead on climate change … will be far greater than anything you can write into a legislation.”
Green Party Leader Annamie Paul slammed the bill Thursday, calling it a major disappointment for climate activists who were expecting a much more ambitious plan.
She said without penalties — or clear targets in writing from the outset — it will be easy for future governments to duck accountability.
“After five years in power, and a record of unfulfilled emissions reductions commitments, the government has given us more smoke and mirrors. There is only talk of accountability about a plan that will be developed at some future date. That’s not what we expected, that is not what we need,” Paul told reporters.
“I’m confused as to why the government is yet again passing up on the chance of a lifetime to put Canada on a path to net zero by 2050. There are no targets and no specific actions designed to put Canada on a pathway to net zero. In short, there is no plan,” she said.
Conservative MP Dan Albas, the party’s environment critic, said Trudeau needs to come clean with Canadians about how much a dramatic reduction in emissions would cost.
“Justin Trudeau needs to be transparent with Canadians about his plan for achieving net zero. Canadians are worried that he plans to dramatically increase carbon taxes, and they are worried about the impact this will have on the cost of gas, groceries and home heating,” he said in a statement.
The bill stipulates that the finance minister also will be required to prepare an annual report each year detailing “key measures that the federal public administration has taken to manage its financial risks and opportunities related to climate change,” to ensure the bureaucracy itself is doing its part to drive down greenhouse gas emissions.