Ecojustice Blog – Climate change Posted on October 6, 2020 (updated: October 6, 2020)

Liberals must pass new Climate Accountability Act – or risk losing ground in climate fight

Julia CroomeLawyer
Parliament Hill
Photo by rickmacewen via Flickr (CC BY-NC-NC 2.0)

Last week, Ottawa agreed to allow Ontario Premier Doug Ford to move ahead with his woefully inadequate carbon pricing program plan, rather than enforce the federal output-based pricing system.

Announced the day before a Supreme Court of Canada hearing on whether the federal government has jurisdiction to price carbon, the deal was widely seen as a reluctant concession on the Liberal government’s part.

The Ontario Emissions Performance Standards program is undeniably less effective than the federal backstop. In fact, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson called it “significantly weaker.”

On the ground, this will mean more harmful emissions and a faster track to climate catastrophe. In other words: higher temperatures, more frequent forest fires, and direct harm to the health and well-being of people in Canada and around the world.

Given the stakes at hand, you may wonder why the Liberal government, which made climate action a central part of its 2019 platform, would have signed off on such a deal – not to mention a similar compromise with New Brunswick.

The answer? Canada’s climate laws aren’t strong enough.

Under the federal Greenhouse Gas Pollution Act, provinces can substitute their own industrial carbon pricing for the federal system as long as they meet nationally determined benchmarks.

This is a good idea on paper, but provinces have found loopholes that allow them to meet the benchmarks without cutting the same amount of emissions. The federal government should take steps to make up the difference, but it doesn’t have to. There are no consequences for failing to meet national climate goals – and the targets themselves are moving goal posts, vulnerable to shifting political winds. 

Without binding climate targets and a law to hold governments to meeting them, provinces can easily undermine national climate efforts – just as Premier Doug Ford did last week. If that happens, Canada will continue its track record of missing every climate target it has ever set.

Something needs to change.

The climate emergency isn’t going away and the sooner the federal government takes decisive action, the better our chances of averting catastrophe.

The Liberal government has already stated its commitment to a new climate law. Governor General Julie Payette repeated this promise in the most recent throne speech.

“The government will immediately bring forward a plan to exceed Canada’s 2030 climate goal,” Payette promised. “(And) legislate Canada’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.”

If these promises are going to become reality, Canada must table a new climate law as soon as possible.

This law must include mechanisms to hold current and future governments to account. Additionally, it must ensure federal and provincial governments work together to reduce emissions by setting national carbon budgets and breaking those budgets up into smaller categories. All levels of governments are responsible to provide a safer, more secure future – and, as the Ontario and New Brunswick deals show, a mish-mash of different plans won’t deliver on climate targets. 

We can look to the European Union for an example of how a new climate law can work. The EU uses an effort-sharing model to ensure member states work together to achieve a common emissions goal. 

The Greenhouse Gas Pollution Act is important and necessary legislation – that’s why, on behalf of our clients, Ecojustice appeared in the Supreme Court of Canada last week to support it. However, this act is only one piece of a successful climate strategy.

From the beginning, the Liberal government has told Canadians it understands tackling the climate crisis will require a comprehensive package of laws, policies and programs, including a new Canadian Climate Accountability Act that will lay out the path to net-zero emissions, set binding emissions targets and help Canadians hold governments accountable for getting there.

If the Liberals fail to table a strong, enforceable new climate act by the end of 2020, they risk losing further ground in the fight for a safe climate. The agreement on Ontario and New Brunswick’s ‘significantly weaker’ carbon pricing programs is proof of this.

We are in a climate emergency and no longer have time for broken promises, weak plans and national disunity.

As we enter the final months of 2020, Canada needs a new climate law that holds political leaders accountable for delivering climate targets. 

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