Bill lays groundwork for possible court enforcement of climate law, says Amos
Newly tabled federal legislation would give the public the opportunity to seek court orders forcing governments to abide by their climate commitments, says a Liberal parliamentary secretary.
Will Amos, an environmental lawyer who is the MP for Pontiac and parliamentary secretary to the industry minister, told Canada’s National Observer on Thursday that Bill C-12, the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, lays significant legal groundwork.
“There’s all sorts of accountability built in here that will be both political and judicial ... the opportunities to bring judicial review in the Federal Court would be legion,” argued Amos.
Bill C-12, tabled Thursday morning, would require the federal government to set national carbon emissions targets for 2030 and beyond, eventually reaching net-zero in 2050, and draw up emissions reduction plans for achieving those targets, which would be made public.
The bill was immediately met with heavy criticism from Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, who called it “a game of smoke and mirrors” at a press conference in Ottawa.
She pointed out that the bill gives the government up to nine months after the legislation comes into force to come up with a new 2030 target, one that the Liberals have been promising since 2019 would “exceed” Canada’s current one.
That’s not good enough, said Paul, because Canada already committed under the Paris Agreement to increase its climate ambition as of this year, 2020. “This legislation makes it clear that we have no intention of increasing our targets within this year,” she said.
Canada has made several international commitments to reduce its carbon pollution since 1992, but has overshot each one.
Conservative environment critic Dan Albas attacked the government for making “new environmental commitments while failing to meet their previous climate promises,” and NDP environment critic Laurel Collins called the bill “a small step in the right direction” but ultimately continuing a trend of “putting off climate action.”
But Amos said the bill presented several opportunities for Canadian courts to hold the government accountable, if it becomes law. The bill’s language is unambiguous, he suggested: It says the minister “must” set national emissions targets, must establish emissions reduction plans and must table those in Parliament, for example, all connected with specific timelines.
While the bill gives the government the power to amend targets, it says Ottawa can only do so in a way that is “consistent with the purpose” of the legislation — namely, achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
“What we’re trying to do is create a set of accountability norms that will put an exceptionally high degree of pressure on both the present and future federal administrations,” he said. “The purpose here is to create both political and legal incentives to act.”
A 2025 target, and a ban on oil and gas execs
Chief among critics’ concerns was the fact that the legislation skips the year 2025 and starts at 2030, despite operating on five-year intervals after that.
Asked by media on Thursday why the government was not subjecting itself to any legally mandated target for 2025, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded that Canada would be “meeting and exceeding our 2030 targets.”
The bill “lays out a framework of accountability and transparency,” Trudeau said, that will ensure Canada reaches its net-zero goal “in a way that gives Canadians confidence.”
West Coast Environmental Law staff lawyer Andrew Gage said the government should be prioritizing more immediate action by setting a 2025 target. The group said the bill contains some “key ingredients” for helping avoid a global climate catastrophe, but that climate action may be too delayed.
The lack of a 2025 target was also a concern for the environmental law charity Ecojustice.
The group also said its initial reading of the bill was that the government was “taking the climate emergency seriously” and noted it was the first time a federal government introduced legislation to hold itself accountable for emissions.
The bill requires the environment minister to prepare a “progress report” for target years and an “assessment report” summarizing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions inventory. If the government concludes that Canada has not achieved a target, the assessment report must then include “the reasons why Canada failed,” as well as a list of actions the government “is taking, or will take” to address the failure.
Keith Stewart, senior energy strategist at Greenpeace Canada, said the bill should include “clear direction for ministers to achieve climate targets rather than simply explain why they failed.”
Bill C-12 orders the finance minister to prepare an annual report outlining what the public service has done to “manage its financial risks and opportunities related to climate change,” and to make that report public. And it orders the federal environment commissioner to report on the government’s climate measures.
The bill would also establish a 15-member part-time “advisory body” with the mandate to provide the minister with advice on how to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The government appoints the members of the advisory body and the minister can alter its terms of reference, but the minister must also publicly respond to its advice.
Amara Possian, Canada campaign director with 350.org, called on the government to ban fossil fuel executives from the advisory panel, saying it was important to ensure that the fossil fuel industry doesn’t undermine the goals of the legislation.
“The climate legislation that Justin Trudeau presented today could be the starting point for real climate action in Canada,” said Possian. “The opposition parties the Liberals need to pass this bill have a historic opportunity to amend the bill and turn it into a made-in-Canada Green New Deal.”
Carl Meyer / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer