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Bill C-12 slightly tips the scale on climate action

Net-Zero Act passes in the nick of time

Canada’s Net-Zero Climate Accountability Act (Bill C-12) has passed! This historic bill – Canada’s first climate accountability legislation – passed through the House and Senate just before legislators broke for summer holiday. While the bill isn’t perfect, it is a step towards climate accountability that was literally years in the making.

The purpose of Bill C-12 is to create a clear framework for climate action, as well as mechanisms to hold the federal government accountable for the climate targets it sets so that Canada can make real emissions reductions. When it was first introduced in November 2020, this bill was far from perfect. It’s only thanks to months and years of hard work and organizing by a host of climate and Indigenous organizations that some key changes have been made through the legislative process.

Nevertheless, the adoption of the bill is by no means a silver bullet. While it does tip the scales towards more serious climate action, we will still need strong movements to create new solutions and push governments to make broad policy change.

This blog digs into the bill to parse out what’s good, what’s not good enough, and whether it has the potential to attain the goals of transparency and accountability.

In the beginning

The first climate accountability legislation was tabled in Canada in 2008 by the late Jack Layton, NDP leader at the time. But it was scuttled when former Prime Minister Stephen Harper called an election while the bill was still under reading in the Senate. That history is eerily similar to the political situation that surrounded this year’s climate accountability bill – as the risk of the Liberals calling an election put huge pressure on passing this bill before summer break.

When Bill C-12 was first introduced last year, we named five major changes needed for strengthening the legislation:

  • Ensure the advisory board is free from fossil fuel industry representatives
  • Include a 2025 emissions reduction target rather than having the first target in 2030
  • Include the wind-down of fossil fuel use and extraction in all climate action plans coming from the bill
  • Include just transition planning for workers
  • Meaningfully centre Indigenous peoples and knowledge in climate action planning

Earlier this year, we had our first win. The federal government announced its climate advisory panel and no members had any immediate ties to the fossil fuel lobby – though some members have worked in oil and gas in the past, some are proponents of blue hydrogen (hydrogen made from natural gas), and one is a champion for nuclear power.

What is in this bill now

The final version of the bill has seen a number of changes – thanks to long-term organizing by social movements to make climate justice an issue that political parties are forced to grapple with, intense advocacy work by climate law and environmental organizations in the last few months, and the actions of key committee members.

Here are some key features of the final bill:

  • Whereas the original bill had its first emissions target set in 2030, there is now a 2026 emissions “objective,” though it’s not a “target”. A “target” requires the minister to make a plan to meet it; the same cannot be said for an “objective.”
  • There is more frequent reporting required now than in the original bill.
  • The bill requires the minister to consider a range of relevant factors, including UNDRIP (the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), in creating action plans.
  • There is no clear requirement for the minister to meet targets. Instead, the bill requires the minister to make plans to meet the target. What’s more, the bill seems to enforce whether a given plan is timely and credible, not whether it’s in fact achieved.
    There are no specific targets for provinces, only the federal government. However, the emissions data collection required by this bill would allow us to see where emissions are coming from in a more detailed way, so we would at least know if provinces aren’t living up to the demands of the climate crisis.
  • There are no limits on the ‘net’ in ‘net zero’. In other words, there is no limit on the extent of emissions reductions that can be achieved through carbon offsets as opposed to real reductions. Reducing our net emissions is not always the same as reducing actual emissions. This cheeky video explains the fallacy of many carbon offset programs.

The latest version of the bill comes close to satisfying the five changes we wanted to see, but it doesn’t quite meet the mark. Here’s a breakdown of what’s still missing:

  • The bill has a 2026 “objective” but it doesn’t include a 2025 target. It’s unclear whether an “objective” carries the same accountability measures as a “target.”
  • Climate action plans coming from this bill do not include the wind-down of fossil fuel extraction and use.
  • The bill does not include just transition planning for workers.
  • While the bill acknowledges UNDRIP, it does not centre Indigenous peoples and knowledge in climate action planning.

Better than nothing?

The purpose of this legislation is for the public to have a tool for holding the government accountable to our climate targets. So far, Canada has failed to meet every single climate target ever set, and we have run out of time to be missing these targets. We need legislation to hold ministers legally responsible for meeting emissions targets. The Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act includes some accountability measures, but not the strong measures we had hoped for.

However, this is just one bill in a constellation of policies and actions that can result in real emissions reductions and a just transition for people in Canada. This is an important piece of legislation, but not the only one we need.

Is this bill better than nothing? A step in the right direction, recognizing that more legislation, policy, and hard work will still be needed even now that the bill has passed? Or will this bill enshrine an insufficient approach to the climate crisis in the law, making it harder to take the more ambitious and effective action that is needed? Time will tell.

We need good legislation, and to get it we need powerful movements

Alongside legislation, accountability can and should also come from social movements. Elected officials won’t take the actions needed if we aren’t organized to hold them accountable. We need to build up the power within our movements to drive policy change and demand action and accountability from governments.

The Council of Canadians is supporting local campaigns for transformative change through our Green New Deal Communities project. We’re providing direct support for locally-rooted campaigns, connecting organizers together across distance to share skills and lessons learned, and telling the story of the kind of Green New Deal this network is trying to create.

Sign up here to learn more about Green New Deal Communities.