The Liberals' net-zero 'accountability' legislation is on thin ice

Bill C-12, the Liberal government's net-zero emissions accountability act, could be a landmark moment in the history of Canada's efforts to combat climate change. But first it has to actually become law — and it's suddenly not obvious that will happen.

If it doesn't pass before the election, it may never happen — and time is running short

A polar bear walks along a melting ice floe in the Franklin Strait in the Northwest Passage on July 23, 2007. Legislation that would put Canada's greenhouse gas emissions targets into law is running out of time to pass both chambers of Parliament before an anticipated fall election. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Bill C-12, the Liberal government's net-zero emissions accountability act, could be a landmark law in the history of Canada's efforts to combat climate change.

But first it has to actually become a law — and it's suddenly not obvious that the bill will get through both the House of Commons and Senate before both chambers adjourn for the summer.

If the bill fails to pass before then, long-held hopes for climate accountability legislation in Canada could hang in the balance during a fall federal election.

"We are deeply concerned that Bill C-12 could again stall if the committee fails to complete clause-by-clause consideration this week," a coalition of green groups said in a letter sent to MPs on the environment committee on Monday.

Pointing to the dwindling number of days remaining before the House is set to rise, the groups – the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecojustice, Équiterre, West Coast Environmental Law, Climate Action Network and Centre québécois du droit de l'environnement – asked members of the committee to complete their review of the bill this week.

The Liberals ask for help

That request was followed on Tuesday by a letter from Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet. In that letter, Wilkinson asked for their "support to use the parliamentary tools available to ensure this bill advances to the Senate of Canada for consideration as soon as possible."

C-12 would put Canada's greenhouse gas emissions targets into law, require regular reporting on the country's progress toward those targets and establish an advisory panel to provide oversight and comment.

The environment committee is now considering amendments proposed by all four major parties, as well as Green MP Elizabeth May. That clause-by-clause review has so far taken up about 12 hours over four meetings and many amendments apparently still haven't been reviewed.

A portrait of a middle-aged man in glasses.
Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has reached out to the NDP and Bloc Québécois for help in passing C-12 before the summer recess. (Mike Sudoma/The Canadian Press)

Liberals and New Democrats — who have agreed on a set of amendments to the bill — accuse the Conservatives of stalling. Wilkinson repeated that charge in his letter to Singh and Blanchet.

The Conservative members of the committee are not explicitly filibustering the bill, but they are doing most of the talking during the time allowed for debate and are asking many questions of the departmental officials on hand.

"If asking questions is now filibustering, then what's the point of having clause-by-clause [review]?" Conservative environment critic Dan Albas asked in an interview this week.

C-12's slow march

Albas said that the committee's study of the legislation was rushed; the committee studied the bill and heard from witnesses over three meetings totalling about nine hours.

C-12 did not move quickly through the House. It was tabled last November but it wasn't until May 4 that Liberal, Bloc and NDP MPs voted to approve the bill at second reading — a vote that came after the Liberals, with the support of the NDP, voted to bring debate to an end.

Albas initially pledged support for the bill, but Conservatives subsequently objected to Wilkinson's decision to proceed with appointing a net-zero advisory panel.

Conservatives insisted that the panel should include a representative from the oil and gas industry and moved a "hoist amendment" — meant to defeat or at least delay the bill — that complained about the presence of "climate activists" on the panel.

Better than nothing?

May criticizes how the government has managed the legislative process for C-12 and has said she believes the bill needs to be much stricter. But during Monday's meeting of the environment committee, she asked for unanimous consent to withdraw seven of her proposed amendments — an effort, she said, to speed up the process. Albas objected, denying May's request.

Though the Liberal bill is modelled on similar legislation in other countries — notably the United Kingdom — environmental groups said in their letter on Monday that the legislation falls short of the "gold standard." They also said they believe the amended version of C-12 "provides a foundation we can build on to ensure Canada develops the robust accountability framework we need."

Green Party MP Elizabeth May tried to withdraw several of her proposed amendments to C-12 to speed its passage. She was blocked by a Conservative MP's objection. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

With another party's support, the Liberals could move to impose a limit on the committee's consideration of the legislation — as the government recently did with Bill C-10. Failing that, the bill's passage would depend on the committee's review of amendments ending reasonably soon.

Though a Senate committee has started a "pre-study" of C-12 already, the upper chamber is due to adjourn for the summer on June 25.

Passing the bill before summer probably wouldn't matter so much were it not for two unknowns.

First, there's the timing of the next election; the recent speculation is that Trudeau will seek to have one called before Parliament reconvenes this fall. Second, there's the fact that the Conservatives haven't committed to implementing climate accountability legislation if they form the next government.

So proponents of a climate accountability law can't be sure of what they would get if C-12 doesn't receive royal assent this month.

If C-12 were to die on the order paper, it would add another chapter of woe to the ill-fated history of climate accountability legislation in Canada.

In 2007, Parliament passed a bill sponsored by Liberal MP Pablo Rodriguez — now the Government House leader — that was tied to the Kyoto Protocol. That bill was later repealed by Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

In 2010, a bill sponsored by former NDP leader Jack Layton was passed in the House, but then defeated by Conservatives in the Senate.

However blame is apportioned for the fact that C-12 is now in a race against time, it would be another unnecessary setback for climate policy in Canada if legislated accountability was left to wait until at least another election.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now