Politics·Analysis

The Liberals' net-zero plan isn't quite a strategy — but it might be the start of one

Committing to net-zero isn't the same as getting there — but it could be the first significant step on the path.

It could be repealed by a future government, but not easily

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves with Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson, second from right, Minister of Canadian Heritage Steven Guilbeault, left, and Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Catherine McKenna following a press conference at the Ornamental Gardens in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Committing to net-zero — and putting that target into law — is not the same thing as doing what it takes to cut Canada's greenhouse gas emissions to that level. But it's not nothing.

In fact, it could end up being something quite useful. The Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act the Liberal government tabled on Thursday morning could help guide the next 30 years of climate policy in Canada.

Much still depends on what happens next. But if momentum for action on climate change is truly coming to a tipping point, it could be difficult for future governments to completely disregard (or even repeal) the legislation Parliament is now being asked to enact.

The bill itself is not a plan for reducing emissions. It does not lay out a set of specific policies for meeting Canada's international climate targets.

What the bill would do is impose statutory requirements on the federal government to account for how Canada will reduce its emissions, while establishing an advisory board to inform the government and enshrining independent oversight to track the government's progress.

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hold a press conference at the Ornamental Gardens in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Within nine months of the bill becoming law, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson would be required to establish a new emissions target for 2030 and table a plan for reaching that target (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed that Canada will exceed the country's existing target of a 30 per cent reduction below the level of 2005). The government is suggesting that such a plan could be just weeks away.

Further into the future, the environment minister would be required to establish a series of targets at five-year intervals for the period between 2030 and 2050 and offer plans for achieving the necessary emissions reductions. The minister would have to report on progress made toward each target and, if the target was missed, explain how the government intends to get the country back on track.

The environment commissioner — an officer in the auditor general's office — would be charged with examining the implementation of the government's plan, while an advisory board would submit an annual report with advice for the minister. The finance minister also would be obliged to issue an annual report on how well the federal government is managing the "financial risks and opportunities related to climate change."

Deadline 2030

The idea of climate change accountability legislation is not new. The United Kingdom has had such a law since 2008. In Canada, the federal NDP made several attempts to pass similar legislation between 2006 and 2011, while a Liberal bill specific to the Kyoto Protocol was passed by opposition MPs in 2007 and then repealed by Stephen Harper's Conservative government in 2012.

Some analysts and critics (though not all of them) suggested Thursday that the new bill should be amended to compel the government to set a new target by 2025 — five years ahead of the deadline in the bill. For now, the first test of the new bill — and the next big test of the Trudeau government — will be the requirement to present a new and more ambitious plan for 2030.

The plan that Wilkinson lays out will be key to determining whether Canada finally manages to hit one of its emissions targets. The path to 2050 will be decided by what happens — or doesn't — over the next 10 years.

While she pointed to several ways the accountability measures in the bill could be strengthened, Catherine Abreu of Canada's Climate Action Network still described the legislation's arrival as "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 in Canada."

A workable compromise?

Partisans may never stop kicking around the details of climate policy. But it's fair to ask whether the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act and its basic goals are things on which all parties could agree.

Made during a federal election campaign, Trudeau's vow that Canada would commit to net-zero emissions by 2050 was something that could be easily dismissed. It didn't cost the Liberals anything to make that promise. And it will be three decades before we know whether Canada fulfilled that commitment; the keys to the federal cabinet room will change hands several times before then.

But the net-zero pledge is in line with what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is necessary to limit further global warming. In committing to it, Canada joins countries like the U.K., France, Germany and Japan. And left-of-centre politicians aren't the only ones who see merit in the basic idea, either — among those applauding the government's new legislation on Thursday was Shell Canada, the oil and gas giant.

Hard to pass, harder to kill

Still, just as Trudeau can't dictate the next 30 years of federal action on climate change, he can't ensure the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act won't be repealed or gutted by some future government. And since the Liberals lack a majority in the House, he can't guarantee that his own government won't fall before this bill is passed or implemented.

But if the bill can get through the House and Senate before the next election, could it prove to be as durable as some of the other structures previous governments built up to check and scrutinize the political actions of the day?

With a dutiful majority in the House, a cavalier government could try to do all sorts of things to weaken those existing structures — by repealing the Conflict of Interest Act, for example, or by gutting the offices of the auditor general and the parliamentary budget officer. One significant obstacle keeping that from happening now is the outrage that would follow — and the simple calculation that it wouldn't be worth the fuss.

Accountability — at least for the most basic matters of federal policy and political behaviour — is something on which all parties agree.

The lifespan of the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act may become a test of whether actions toward that net-zero target, and efforts to account for those actions, become sacrosanct — or at least things that all sides are willing to live with.

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

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.

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