New federal climate bill falls short of necessary and meaningful action

Recently approved legislation is another small step in the right direction, but more needs to be done

(Wikimedia Commons)

The first emissions reduction commitment ever made by Canada was set in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. In the 28 years since, the successive governments of this country have categorically failed to meet every single reduction target they have ever set.

Thankfully, the federal government just introduced a new bill which will legally bind future governments to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The new legislation represents a step in the right direction, but it also doesn’t specify what “legally binding” means, aside from having to require a report explaining the failure to meet targets.

It also doesn’t set out any legal penalties or repercussions for failure to meet those targets, and can be repealed by future governments. Alarmingly, it sets the first accountability target for 2030, while experts point out the need to review progress by 2025 in order to encourage the immediate action we desperately need to reduce emissions enough to hit our current target.

The current 2030 goal of reducing emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels is currently out of reach, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada. To hit that target, the government needs to limit Canada’s emissions to 513 megatons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually, but Canada’s current emissions progress report shows that, even under the best circumstances, it’s impossible to meet this target without implementing “unmodelled measures and emerging and future reductions” in order to make up for about 79 Mt of those emissions.

The report only includes two examples for where these emerging and future reductions might come from: “future federal provincial and territorial measures,” which are entirely undefined and the government-speak equivalent of a giant collective shrug, and the CleanBC Plan.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we are not on track to meeting the targets set out by that plan either, with the most recent update of the CleanBC plan concluding that “we are not on track to meet our goals if we don’t change the way we use energy across key sectors,” and that “the slow rate of emissions decline is troubling.”

At this point, whenever I hear governments use the word “target” when discussing climate change, I interpret it as a framing of expectations meant to make their inevitable failure seem less disappointing — not as an actual goal they intend to achieve.

While the targets are based on scientific models of what we need to do in order to avoid widespread catastrophic destruction, the government’s use of them is meaningless if they don’t back it up with concrete ways of reaching them.

There are very real policy decisions with measurable outcomes that the government could make today, like reinstating the Ontario cap and trade program cancelled by the Ford provincial government. Or establishing a nationalized version of Iron and Earth’s prosperous transition plan, which educates and empowers trades-people in the fossil fuel industry to switch to sustainable energy jobs. Or instituting a nation-wide nuclear energy program to meet our electricity needs.

Sure, the government’s idea to plant billions of trees is also a step in the right direction, but its effectiveness is also likely overstated.

According to Natural Resources Canada, since 2001, annual wildfires, insect damage, and deforestation and decay throughout the country have actually caused our forests to release more greenhouse gases into the air than they have absorbed. Adding more trees could help, but it will take decades before we see them make a sizable impact.

Regardless of how we do it, we obviously have a lot of work to do in order to meet these goals. Unfortunately, that work is, once again, not being outlined in a meaningful results-oriented way by the federal government, even after five years of having a majority.

This could have all changed with the newly approved bill, but it didn’t, and until solid measures are taken to guarantee the government’s performance on emissions reduction, “accountability” will continue to be treated as a flexible suggestion, rather than something that actually motivates decision-makers to stick to their commitments.