Ecojustice Case – Climate change Case Status: Victory

Fighting to uphold federal authority to lead unified, national action on the climate emergency

Josh GinsbergJosh GinsbergLawyer
Athabasca Chipewyan First NationClient
David Suzuki FoundationClient
Supreme Court of Canada
Photo by Dig deeper CC BY 4.0

To effectively combat the climate emergency, we need to take unified, urgent, and ambitious climate action to reach net-zero by 2050.

That’s why the federal government introduced the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act in 2018 — the law is a backstop aimed at provinces that fail to implement a comparable emissions reduction strategy of their own.

In response, Alberta, Ontario, and Saskatchewan all launched separate constitutional challenges of the Act, claiming that it was an overreach of federal powers into provincial affairs.

Courts in Saskatchewan and Ontario upheld the constitutionality of the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act and confirmed the federal government has the power to step in when the province fails to effectively tackle climate change. Meanwhile, Alberta’s court delivered a split (4-1) outlier decision that sided with the province.

All three provinces appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC).

Ecojustice lawyers represented the David Suzuki Foundation and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation as interveners in all three lower court proceedings and again before the Supreme Court of Canada in Fall 2020.

The three-year battle over the federal backstop culminated with the SCC handing down a landmark climate decision in March 2021, ruling that the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act is constitutionally-sound and essential in the fight against the climate crisis.


Why was Ecojustice involved?

As we’ve seen so far, significant emissions reductions in some provinces have been undermined by inadequate climate plans and increased emissions in provinces that refused to take part in the cooperative, pan-Canadian approach. We need to look no further than Ontario scrapping its previous climate programs and ambitions, and steady emission increases in Alberta and Saskatchewan since 2005, as examples.

Ecojustice took part in all three lower court proceedings and intervened again before the SCC because we know the climate emergency requires a collective approach. It’s going to require every level of government working together to reduce emissions and get Canada to net-zero by 2050. The health and well-being of future generations depend on it.


What does this victory mean?

The SCC’s precedent-setting decision confirms that the federal government has the authority to take national, coordinated action to price carbon. In other words, when provinces attempt to impede climate progress being made in other parts of the country, the federal government has the power to step in.

The Court’s ruling contains some of the strongest language we have seen about the climate emergency from any court in Canada or around the world. The Court confirmed the reality of the climate emergency (along with the grave threat it poses to the future of humanity) and solidifies carbon pricing as an integral solution to this crisis.

Now that the legal debate about whether it is constitutional for the federal government to take national, coordinated action to price carbon is over, it will be up to the provinces and their premiers to get on board — or the federal backstop will force them onto the right path.

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