Federal climate accountability legislation receives royal assent

Capital

On June 29, 2021, the federal government’s climate accountability legislation — the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act (the Act)[1] — received royal assent. The Act establishes legal requirements that the federal government set national targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Canada with the objective of attaining net-zero emissions by 2050, and mandates the requirement to prepare reduction plans, progress reports and assessment reports to hold the federal government accountable to those targets. In this blog post, we discuss the reporting and oversight mechanisms in the Act and the potential implications for Canada’s effort to meet its GHG emissions reduction targets.

National GHG emissions reduction targets

The Act requires that the federal Minister of the Environment and Climate Change (the Minister) set national targets for the reduction of GHG emissions on a rolling five-year basis, with targets being established on the “milestone years” of 2030, 2035, 2040 and 2045.

At present, the Act establishes a 2030 target of 40–45% below 2005 levels. The due dates for the Minister to set the remaining GHG emissions reduction targets are as follows:

  • 2035 target due by December 1, 2024
  • 2040 target by December 1, 2029
  • 2045 target by December 1, 2034

When setting these targets, the Minister must take into account the best scientific information available, Canada’s international commitments with respect to climate change, Indigenous knowledge and submissions prepared by a “Net-Zero Advisory Body,” whose mandate is to provide the Minister with independent advice with respect to achieving net-zero by 2050.

To ensure that the targets are met, the Minister is required to establish GHG reduction plans for each milestone year and the 2050 target year. Emissions reduction plans must contain, among other things

  • the GHG emissions reduction target for the year that the plan relates to
  • a summary of Canada’s most recent GHG emissions inventory
  • the measures and strategies that are to be implemented through the plan to achieve the target

The 2030 plan must be established by the Minister within six months of the day that the Act came into force, and each subsequent plan must be established at least five years before the beginning of the year to which it relates (e.g., the 2035 plan must be established by 2030).

Accountability mechanisms

The Act establishes a number of reporting and oversight mechanisms that are intended to provide transparency with respect to the federal government’s progress towards meeting its GHG emissions targets.

Chief among these mechanisms are requirements that the Minister table reports in both the House of Commons and the Senate on the government’s efforts on the path to 2050, as follows:

  • Progress Reports: To track progress towards 2050, progress reports must be completed at least two years prior to the start of each milestone year and the target year of 2050. Among other things, each progress report must provide
    • an update on the progress that has been made towards achieving the GHG emissions reduction targets
    • Canada’s most recent published GHG projections for the next milestone year
    • an update on the implementation of the measures and strategies described in the emissions reduction plan for meeting the GHG emissions reduction target
    • details of any additional measures that could be taken to increase the probability of achieving the target if the projections indicate that the target will not be met
  • Assessment Reports: To assess whether the targets have been achieved, assessment reports must be prepared following each milestone year and the ultimate target year 2050. If the Minister fails to achieve its target for the relevant milestone, the Minister must include in the assessment report
    • the reasons why Canada failed to meet the target
    • a description of actions the Government of Canada is taking or will take to address the failure to achieve the target
    • any other information that the Minister considers appropriate

In addition to these reporting requirements, as noted above, the Act also establishes the Net-Zero Advisory Body, which must submit an annual report to the Minister with respect to its advice for achieving the emissions reduction targets. The Minister is then required to make the annual report available to the public within 30 days of receiving it and then, within 120 days of receiving the report, respond publicly to the advice contained in the Advisory Body’s report.

The Act further requires that the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, at least once every five years, examine and report on the government’s implementation of the measures aimed at mitigating climate change, including those undertaken to achieve its most recent GHG emissions target as identified in the relevant assessment report. The Commissioner’s arm’s-length oversight is intended to independently monitor and report on the government’s implementation progress.

Commentary

The Act marks the first time that the federal government has legislated emissions accountability, by setting legal requirements on the government to plan for and report on its efforts to achieve net-zero emissions. In that regard, the Act represents an important step in the country’s efforts to combat climate change, by implementing mechanisms that should make Canada’s climate policies more consistent, transparent and resilient to potential changes in legal, political and economic factors currently driving climate policies in Canada.

However, the Act’s commitment to specific GHG emissions reduction targets is not necessarily novel, especially in an international context. In the past, Canada has failed to meet its emissions reduction targets under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, including those contained in the Kyoto Protocol, adopted on December 11, 1997, and the Copenhagen Accord [PDF], adopted December 18, 2009, both of which prescribed specific emissions reduction targets for many countries, including Canada.

The “legally binding” processes and targets established through the Act are intended to ensure that, through the force of domestic Canadian law, the government is held to account for its climate promises. However, beyond the requirement to table reports for parliamentary and public scrutiny (and the potential political consequences that may result), there are no legal consequences incorporated into the legislation. If an individual brought the government to court for failing to meet a target, it is likely that the only relief available would be a declaration from the court that highlights the failures of the federal government. Without further tangible consequences, it remains to be seen whether the Act will assist the federal government in overcoming the obstacles which prevented it from meeting its previous climate change commitments. The principle of parliamentary sovereignty also means that a future government could simply repeal the Act and rid itself of its underlying obligations.

Nonetheless, for those concerned about Canada’s role in combatting climate change, the Act is a significant step forward in that it does create a framework to hold the government responsible for meeting its climate commitments. With growing public acceptance in Canada of the imperative to transition to a low- (or zero-) carbon economy, any attempt by a future government to repeal the Act would likely be characterized by opposition parties at the time as a rejection of the basis of climate policy and net-zero GHG targets. In this regard, the Act could play a critical and strategic role in entrenching the current level of public acceptance of net-zero GHG targets and raising the political stakes for any future federal government that may seek to abandon or alter such laws and policies.


[1]      Bill C-12, An Act respecting transparency and accountability in Canada’s efforts to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050, 2nd Sess, 43rd Parl, 2021 (as passed by the House of Commons 29 June 2021).