Liberals legislate 2050 net-zero emissions, but critics say they're delaying action

OTTAWA — Newly proposed federal legislation would legally bind the government to set multiple targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next 30 years but the only penalty for failing to meet them would be to admit so publicly.

It will also be more than a decade before that first assessment is due, with no plans to set any new targets before 2030.

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Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson tabled the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act in the House of Commons Thursday.

Bill C-12, if passed, would require the federal environment minister to set five-year targets for cutting carbon emissions starting in 2030, and ending in 2050, when Canada is supposed to hit net-zero.

That means there either are no more emissions, or those still produced are absorbed by nature or technology.

"The act tabled this morning delivers on a promise we made to Canadians during the last election to provide a legally binding process for this government and for all future governments to set national targets and to bring forward climate plans on a rolling basis every five years between 2030 and 2050," Wilkinson said Thursday at a news conference in Ottawa.

The proposed legislation doesn't say what those targets will be.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government still intends to live up to its commitment to exceed the current targets by 2030, but the legislation would not require an actual number — or a plan to get there — until at least six months after it becomes law.

For the remaining targets and plans for 2035, 2040, 2045, they have to be made public at least five years in advance of the goal.

A progress report on each target must be published no later than two years before the target date. The assessment of whether or not the target was met would not come until after the annual emissions reports, which are two years behind, are released.

That means the first assessment report on the 2030 targets could be 12 years away.

Many environment groups and opposition parties praised the legislation as a good first step but almost all are dismayed the government did not set an interim five-year target for 2025.

NDP environment critic Laurel Collins said most climate experts say the next 10 years are critical for averting the worst consequences of climate change.

Collins said setting a 2025 target would show Canada understands that and is willing to do more to prevent it.

"It's better than what we had before but it is in no way adequate to the crisis that we're facing," Collins said. "It in no way responds to the fact that the next 10 years are the most important."

She said the NDP intends to try to get the government to amend the bill so that it includes a 2025 target, but refused to say if the party would support the bill if that does not happen.

Green Leader Annamie Paul declared her party unable to support the bill. She said the bill promises to set targets but has nothing to actually meet them and no real teeth.

The reporting requirements are the transparency measure contained for the bill and the accountability measure is that the government would have to admit if it does not hit any of the five-year targets, explain why and what it will do to fix it.

Paul said that is not enforcement.

Trudeau said the enforcement will come from Canadians.

"Any government that does not have a plan to meet the targets will hear from the voters," he said.

The proposed legislation would establish a 15-member advisory board to guide the government's targets and plans to meet them. It would also order the environment commissioner to audit Canada's climate change mitigation measures at least once every five years.

It would also require the minister of finance to report each year on what the Finance Department is doing to mitigate the financial risks from climate change.

Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, said the legislation is a "big step" and is something environmental advocates have been working to get done for years.

But she said a 2025 target and a stronger 2030 goal are musts if the current government — not just future ones — is to be held to account.

"In particular there's work to be done ensuring that this bill drives ambition in the near term, rather than simply backloading all of the work on climate change to decades from now," said Abreu.

Canada has set multiple goals for curbing emissions over the last three decades and has never met a single one of them.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2020.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said NDP environment critic Laurel Collins said the next 10 years are critical to halting global warming below 2 C above pre-industrial levels. Collins did not provide a temperature. A previous version also said the proposed climate legislation is Bill C-15.

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