The case for a national Climate Act
Two separate reports issued less than a week apart agree that it’s time for Canada to put an end to its 30-year record of broken climate commitments, and that a new climate law is the way to do it.
In “Marking the Way: How Legislating Climate Milestones Clarifies Pathways to Long-Term Goals”, the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices says that long-term targets are notoriously hard to meet. Specific, legislatively-mandated short-term targets are much more likely to build toward a noble long-term objective.
Ecojustice and five other environmental organizations take it a step further, proposing a new Canadian Climate Accountability Act. Their report, “A New Canadian Climate Accountability Act: Building the legal foundation to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050”, calls for a federal law that sets national and provincial/territorial five-year carbon budgets, regular reporting and a credible body of experts to advise on action and report on progress. Provincial/territorial carbon budgets would not be binding on the provinces and territories but over time would bring public pressure to bear on provinces and territories that were not pulling their weight.
Both reports draw heavily on the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) Climate Change Act 2008. Under that law, UK emissions fell to 44% below 1990 levels in 2018. The UK has met its first two carbon budgets (2008-2012 and 2013-2017) and is on track to outperform its third (2018-2022). Carbon budgets set a hard cap on emissions over a five-year period. In the UK, they must be set at least 12 years in advance in order to provide certainty to the economy.
Five-year budgets are very important, says Jason Dion, mitigation research director at the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, but so are the independent advisory body and the regular accountability framework around those budgets. They ensure transparency and accessibility, says Dion in a phone interview with EcoLog News. A government has nowhere to hide if it strays off course.
“Our cumulative expertise and research indicate to us that if you pass a framework law along the lines of what we propose, you have a very good chance of starting to meet your targets,” says Julia Croome, Ecojustice lawyer and lead-author of the report, “A New Canadian Climate Accountability Act”, in a phone interview with EcoLog News.
There are barriers. Provinces and territories have their own jurisdictions. No Parliament can bind its successor. There’s nothing to prevent the government of the day from simply repealing a climate law it doesn’t like. At the provincial level, Canada has already seen that in Ontario and Alberta.
“You can’t do an end-run around democracy,” says Dion. But the UK’s Climate Change Act 2008, which was brought in by a Labour government, has survived a succession of Conservative governments. Dion says one of the reasons it has is that it is not binding. A more demanding law, one with binding targets, might well have been repealed, he says.
The UK’s Climate Change Act 2008 has been emulated elsewhere — New Zealand, Sweden, Denmark, France, Germany, Spain, and even Manitoba and British Columbia. Canada could have followed the UK’s lead at any point over the past 12 years, and it did not. But there is room to hope that now, it might. There is an emerging consensus of what best practice looks like.
“Remember that more than 2/3 of Canadians voted for parties with significant climate commitments,” says Croome, referring to the last federal election in 2019.
Clarification: The UK 2050 target and five-year carbon budgets are binding on the government. The UK's Climate Change Act 2008 requires the Secretary of State to ensure that emissions in the UK reach net zero by 2050, to set carbon budgets with a view to meeting that 2050 target, and to propose policies to enable those carbon budgets to be met. While the Secretary of State has the legislated authority to alter climate targets, carbon budgets and the baseline, the legislation establishes clear rules for how, and under which conditions, they can be amended. The Secretary of State must regularly report to Parliament on progress. Separately, the independent Committee on Climate Change must do the same. However, the Act does not set out penalties on the government, should it fail to reach a target or exceed its budget.