In November 2020, the Liberal government tabled a bill that introduces new governance to support its action on climate change and, more specifically, its net-zero objectives for 2050.
In its current form, however, Bill C-12 is still insufficient. While several measures represent steps in the right direction, together, they fail to meet the minimum standards to bring change on the needed scale, as demonstrated by best practices from abroad.
For more than 20 years, Canada has repeatedly missed its greenhouse gas reduction targets, irrespective of the government in place. It is the only G7 country where emissions have increased since 2010, while most industrialized countries and a growing number of emerging countries are successfully reducing their emissions.
Yet Canada is part of the Paris Agreement, which entered into force in 2016, and it has pledged a 30 per cent reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions compared to the 2005 level by 2030, nine years from now.
The federal government’s carbon price, declared constitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada on March 25, is an important step, but it is not enough to decarbonize the economy. Such a deep transformation also requires a set of legislative and regulatory mechanisms to put in place the conditions necessary to ensure the best use of the tens of billions of dollars of annual public and private investments necessary to move to a carbon-free economy.
We are both climate experts. Normand is a professor of physics and the scientific director of the Trottier Energy Institute, and he participated in the creation of the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices. Corinne chairs the High Council on Climate in France and is a member of the Climate Change Committee in the United Kingdom. She is the author of three synthesis reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Five elements of governance
Bill C-12 proposes five elements of governance aimed at providing a framework for the decarbonization of the Canadian economy:
Setting greenhouse gas emission targets at five-year intervals (milestone years), between 2030 and 2050; these targets must be established at least five years before the milestone year.
The obligation for the minister responsible for climate change mitigation and adaptation to submit a plan to achieve intermediate objectives at least five years before each milestone year.
The requirement that the minister report two years before the milestone year an inventory on the progress of the plan.
The creation of a committee responsible for providing advice on sectoral measures and strategies to be followed.
The requirement that the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development review the effectiveness of the measures deployed by the Government of Canada to achieve the objectives.
Yet, the bill leaves out crucial elements that could ensure long-term planning and, just as important, provide accountability that would consider all actions and plans aimed at achieving climate objectives.
Inspiration from best practices
Bill C-12 could include a target as early as 2025 or 2026, and extend the announcement of subsequent targets from five to 12 years. The U.K., which has been one of the most successful countries in reaching its climate targets, sets five-year carbon budgets, 12 years in advance. This is also France’s approach.
This long horizon makes it easier for both the public and the private sector to plan investments because it reduces uncertainty. It also make it easier to incorporate targets into long-term strategic plans, reducing the cost of transformation and increasing the likelihood of success.
Equally important, independent expert committees are increasingly used, including in the U.K. and France, to support long-term government climate policies. The committees that have the most impact are composed of experts, are free to speak publicly, have few members and are endowed with a staff and a dedicated research budget.
Their mandate is to assess the effectiveness of the measures in place and the plausibility of the scenarios and plans proposed by the government. They must also make recommendations based on evidence, that is, on the direct experience gained both in the country and abroad, and not only from theoretical models as to the orientations, measures and plans to be put in place or to be implemented.
To be heard in Canada, this committee should have direct access to Parliament, with the obligation for the government to respond to its annual reports each year. (The current bill requires the minister to respond, but without passing by Parliament.)
The role of this committee differs fundamentally from that of the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development. The latter’s mandate is to look back and take stock of the programs deployed and their performance indicators. On the contrary, the committee of experts must look to the future and analyze the plausibility of the scenarios and the relevance of the plans, taking into account all the actions undertaken across the country as much by governments as by private actors.
In doing so, the expert committee has the freedom to engage with government and other stakeholders, drawing on best practices and evidence, to keep pace and ensure climate goals are met.
The advisory mandates and structure of the Net-Zero Advisory Group, included in the bill, and of the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices (CICC), created by Environment and Climate Change Canada two years ago, are insufficient to offer the required accountability that is expected from a fully independent expert committee.
The CICC lacks a legally guaranteed existence, has no access to Parliament and has a cumbersome governance structure, involving too many experts. It is without the agility and bite to impose accountability. The same goes for the advisory group whose mandate, defined by Bill C-12, is essentially turned internally, in direct support of the minister, but without the independence necessary for public, critical and constructive work.
The need to reinforce key elements
The scope of Bill C-12 could be enhanced by raising the status of the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development to an independent officer of Parliament, therefore reporting directly to Parliament. It should report annually on progress made in the year, rather than every five years, starting in 2022.
Bill C-12 could place the advisory group under the aegis of the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, rather than under the authority of the minister, to enhance its independence and efficiency by bringing the (past) assessment closer to the (future) prospective.
Members should be chosen for their expertise in related issues (including climate science, energy, economics, agriculture and land). This relatively small group should be supported by its own technical team. Finally, the government could seek the advice of this group before deciding on the five-year targets in order to benefit from their expertise and to ensure the coherence of all its policies.
It is not too late to make the necessary changes to the climate governance structure proposed by Bill C-12, building on the experiences of other countries. To do this, it is essential that the Canadian government recognize the importance of providing citizens and investors with long-term predictability. It must also recognize the importance of a critical, rich and strong voice, able to draw on best practices.