Targets set, not yet met

New act to legislate GHG reduction targets holds future governments to account, not current one

Canada has failed to meet every GHG reduction target it has set. | Getty Images

Kyoto, Copenhagen, Paris – Canadian environment ministers have been flying to these cities and then signing commitments to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions since the late 1990s, and have failed to meet every emission reduction target they set.

Under the Kyoto Accord, Canada committed to reducing GHGs by 6% from 1990s levels by 2012, then withdrew from the agreement in 2011 when emissions actually went up.

In 2009, Canada pledged under the Copenhagen Accord to cut GHG emissions from 730 megatonnes to 607 megatonnes by 2020, and is on track to miss that target by about 100 megatonnes.

More recently, following the signing of the Paris Agreement, Canada has committed to net zero by 2050.

But without legislation that binds all future governments, regardless of who is in power, to setting periodic targets and then explaining if the government is on track to meet them – and if not, why not – targets may be hard to achieve.

Environmental groups are therefore applauding new federal legislation introduced today that will oblige all future governments to set targets, and then report every five years on its progress, although one group says it misses one crucial milestone and lacks teeth.

“Precisely because it moves us past the vagaries of the election cycle with legal requirements on governments to achieve climate progress, a strong accountability framework provides much-needed regulatory certainty for businesses to confidently make investments needed today to create jobs in the competitive economy of tomorrow,” Isabelle Turcotte, federal policy director for the Pembina Institute, said in a press release.

“Climate targets are important signals in the fight against climate change, but promises are nothing without accountability and a plan to meet them,” said Sarah Petrevan, policy director at Clean Energy Canada.

This climate legislation could be game-changing,” David Suzuki Foundation acting executive director Ian Bruce said. It promises to be a foundation for Canada’s path to meeting climate goals, domestically and internationally.”  

But Dale Marshall, national climate program manager for the Environmental Defence Fund, said the new bill lacks one critical milestone – 2025. And there is no real enforcement mechanism for governments that fail.

Bill C-12, introduced today for first reading, will set milestone targets every five years, and require the federal government to report on its progress two years prior to each milestone.

Once the act is in force, the federal minister of Environment must set a target for 2030 and detail the measures the government plans to use to hit those targets. Every five years the federal government will need to set a target for the next five years.

The first progress report would be due in 2028.

Marshall points out that the 2030 milestone will hold future governments to account, not the current Trudeau government.

He says the first milestone should be 2025, not 2030, which would mean the Trudeau government would have to produce its first progress report in 2023 – which is when the next federal election is due to be held.

“The climate accountability legislation introduced today unfortunately has major deficiencies that will, at best, hold future governments accountable,” he said.

Although the bill is described as a “transparency and accountability” act with respect to climate change policy, it’s not clear how it actually would hold government accountable for failing to hit targets.

If the federal minister reports that Canada is likely to miss its next target, the minister must simply explain why, and provide plans for addressing the shortfall.

As Marshall points out, the act lacks a mechanism for “ensuring that if Canada is off-track, there are immediate consequences, namely government action – not plans.”

Nor does the legislation provide accountability for provincial governments that don’t do their part in setting and meeting targets. It is provincial governments, after all, that are responsible for many of the regulations and taxes needed to curb emissions.