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New federal climate bill unlikely to solve Canada’s greenhouse gas reduction problem – here’s why

This column is an opinion by Kyle Hiebert, a research analyst in Winnipeg and former deputy editor of the Africa Conflict Monitor. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The much-anticipated climate legislation the Liberal government tabled recently is Canada’s strongest contribution yet to the global effort to rein in runaway climate change. It formally places Canada among the 126 countries representing 51 per cent of the global economy that have pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2060 or earlier. However, Bill C-12 on its own lacks the ambition required to steer Canada toward a truly sustainable future.

The federal government under Justin Trudeau has consistently vowed to exceed its 2030 goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels. Reaching that goal – itself a holdover from the Stephen Harper era – would mean a reduction from 730 megatonnes of emissions in 2005, to 511 megatonnes in 2030.

Federal government data from December 2019 showed that Canada is on track to miss that target by roughly 35 per cent, some 77 megatonnes.

As it stands, Bill C-12 appears too passive to substantially close the gap.

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Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson, left, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Infrastructure and Communities Catherine McKenna announce their federal climate initiative at the Ornamental Gardens in Ottawa on Nov. 19. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The bill does represent some progress on Canada’s climate action. It mandates that the federal government create five-year legally binding “milestone” emissions reductions targets, and that the environment minister consult a 15-member nonpartisan expert advisory body on how to best reach net zero.

The bill also creates independent oversight and requires the government to be more transparent around its exposure to the financial risks associated with climate change, thereby modelling behaviour for the private sector to emulate.

However, it pales in comparison to the climate plans of other industrialized nations, and critics rightly identify some glaring flaws.

There is no enforcement mechanism – a government that fails to meet its self-imposed targets must only admit it failed to do so and then create a plan to do better – and no assigned budget to conduct environmental performance audits.

The legislation also omits any defined structure for the role that the provinces must play in the success of any future national climate strategy. This alone could sink the most well-intentioned plans, as illustrated by how the future of the Trudeau government’s signature climate policy, the carbon tax, now hinges on a decision from the Supreme Court after legal challenges by Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.

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Bill C-12 lacks any defined structure for the role that the provinces must play in the success of any future national climate strategy. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Then there is the crucial action time that’s lost, given that the initial milestone target is set for a decade from now, in 2030. An editorial in The Globe and Mail dryly noted: “Trudeau proposes net-zero emissions plan – for the next government.”

That should be cause for serious concern. While it’s true that Canada’s emissions represent a small portion of global emissions overall, as one of world’s richest nations and the second-highest per-capita emitter, Canada’s treasured moral authority on the world stage is being eroded by the absence of a proportionate climate policy.

Meanwhile, Canadian communities are becoming more susceptible to the ruinous effects of climate change, from the increase in so-called “100-year floods” that cause billions of dollars in property and infrastructure damage, to worsening wildfires in B.C. Warming in the Arctic is happening at a rate two to three times faster than the rest of the world, something that federal government scientists say is “effectively irreversible.” Canada’s peatlands, dense layers of partially decayed vegetation that blanket large swathes of the country, have been described as “tinderboxes” ready to ignite in a drier world.

Also of consequence is the fact that the longer Canada delays fully embracing a green transition, the more Canadian businesses and industry lose out on the immense financial opportunities that such a transition represents.

This includes an estimated $3.5 trillion in potential annual investment to enable a global transition in the energy sector alone. Roughly $135 billion of that is in carbon capture and storage as well as biofuel technologies, two areas where Canadian clean-energy exports are already outperforming fossil fuel exports despite Canada’s unwavering support for the oil and gas sector.

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People take part in a climate change protest in Montreal on Nov. 21. An analysis released in early December by Climate Action Tracker says the goals of the Paris Agreement are still within reach, given the number of countries that have now pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

The UN in 2018 warned that the world had just 12 years to get far enough ahead of global warming to stay below an average rise of 2 C and avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Yet current climate policies put the world on track for 2.7 to 3.1 degrees of warming by the end of the century. And while that 12-year deadline is somewhat misleading by being too zero-sum, the need for much, much stronger climate action is clearly evident.

The Liberal government is inching that way by promising to commit a good portion of the $100 billion in stimulus spending announced in last week’s fall fiscal update toward green infrastructure. Also included in the update was new money for home retrofits and electric vehicle charging stations.

An analysis released in early December from Climate Action Tracker, an independent environmental monitoring project, argues that the goals of the Paris Agreement are still within reach, given the number of countries that have now pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by mid-century. However, a contributor to Climate Action Tracker speaking to BBC News offered a word of caution: “Long-term targets are easier, they are far away. But short-term actions are happening right now and they affect citizens, they affect voters. And that’s why this is much more difficult.”

Bill C-12 is a necessary step, yet insufficient on its own to spur meaningful action on short-term initiatives.

As the Trudeau Liberals have shown before, making big promises is easy – but promises are meaningless if they aren’t followed by urgent and oftentimes difficult actions.

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