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Supreme Court decision on carbon pricing is both a win and a call to action

Today, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the federal government’s carbon pricing plan is entirely constitutional and that provinces can’t choose to opt out of a federal climate plan.

Several provinces — notably Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Ontario — had challenged the legality of the carbon plan as a way of eschewing their responsibility to act in the face of the climate crisis.

But while this Supreme Court ruling is a victory, it is also a call to action.

This decision will protect all future climate action at the national level and, importantly, it will prevent future legal challenges from provinces. But the carbon pricing policy itself is far from the aggressive action we desperately need.

Now is the time to strengthen the federal climate plan, and for governments to cooperate across jurisdictions to build a just transition.

Why we intervened in the Saskatchewan case

In 2018, the federal Liberals launched the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act (GGPPA) as a centrepiece of their climate change plan. The Act established minimum standards for carbon pricing while allowing provinces to set their own policies.

Saskatchewan was one of three provinces, along with Alberta and Ontario, to challenge the constitutionality of the law in its appeal court. The case was eventually brought to the Supreme Court, with three other provinces — Quebec, Manitoba, and New Brunswick — joining to oppose the law.

The Council of Canadians, with leadership from our Saskatoon and Regina chapters, intervened in the Saskatchewan case, arguing that the GGPPA is constitutional, and that the federal government has the responsibility to demand climate action from provinces. Alongside our allies, we argued that inadequate climate action is a violation of Canadian Charter rights and international law.

Jim Elliott spoke on behalf of our Regina Chapter at a press conference today about the Supreme Court decision.

“We do not have time for this provincial government to get in everyone’s way,” he said. “We need to enable people and governments to take effective and equitable climate action, and not spend more time fighting about who should take the lead – we all need to take the lead.”

“My generation is very frustrated with the bailing out of large corporations,” Syndey Chadwick from Fridays For Future Regina added. “We want to see corporations held responsible for the emissions they cause… Instead of fighting against progress and change, Saskatchewan needs to fight for climate action.”

Deeper dive into the Supreme Court decision

This decision was focused on federal carbon pricing legislation, but the court also looked at the context surrounding that law – the climate crisis and the constitution.

“Climate change is real. It is caused by greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities, and it poses a grave threat to humanity’s future,” Chief Justice Richard Wagner says in the ruling.

He adds that the effects of the climate crisis will be “severe and devastating” in Canada and have already threatened the ability of Indigenous communities to sustain themselves and their traditional ways of life.

Justice Wagner also wrote that a patchwork approach, where provinces can choose to opt out of a federal plan, would hinder the collective fight against climate change.

While five provinces in the country account for more than 90 per cent of all GHG emissions in Canada, the effects of the climate emergency will be felt across Canada, he said. Provinces and territories with low emissions would experience effects that are grossly disproportionate to their individual contributions.

Justice Wagner also ruled that the failure to include one province in the carbon pricing scheme would jeopardize its success in the rest of the country.

He also rejected the notion that because climate change is “an inherently global problem,” individual provinces’ GHG emissions would cause no “measurable harm.”

“Any province’s failure to act threatens Canada’s ability to meet its international obligations, which in turn hinders Canada’s ability to push for international action to reduce GHG emissions,” he wrote.

Carbon pricing is one small tool for climate action — we need much more

This is an important legal victory — we need governments at all levels to coordinate to take ambitious climate action — but now is not the time to get complacent.

In response to the ruling, Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson boasted that “we have a comprehensive climate plan that provides a detailed path for Canada to meet and exceed its climate goals while creating jobs across the economy.”

Unfortunately, almost every word of that statement is untrue.

The summation of Canada’s current climate plans put us on a path to miss our Paris Agreements targets, fail to plan a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry, and leave workers at risk.

And the reality is that the federal government’s carbon pricing legislation falls well below what is needed.

While it is critical that provinces have been legally barred from opting out of a federal climate plan, we need to push for a more aggressive federal climate plan.

Now that this case has concluded, the Council of Canadians urges the federal and provincial governments to immediately get to work planning a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry, supporting communities and workers through this economic and energy transition, and prioritizing investment in public services and infrastructure in this transition.

Next steps for effective climate action

The federal government tabled the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act in late 2020 and has stalled on bringing it back to the house to complete second reading. This bill is currently far from perfect, and we need to see some big changes to the bill before it can deliver the kind of climate action we need.

We have already had one win on the net-zero act – the federal government announced its net-zero advisory panel, and as we demanded, it is free from representatives of the fossil fuel industry! Now we need to see this bill go to committee so these further changes can be made:

  • strengthened accountability measures including a strong 2025 climate target
  • more meaningful participation of Indigenous peoples in climate action planning
  • planning for a just transition for workers
  • planning for the managed decline of the fossil fuel industry

Click here to sign our petition demanding that this bill be strengthened

Thanks to our co-intervenors in the Saskatchewan case:

  • Climate Justice Saskatoon
  • National Farmers’ Union
  • Saskatchewan Coalition for Sustainable Development
  • Saskatchewan Council of International Cooperation
  • SaskEV (Saskatoon Electric Vehicle)
  • New Brunswick Anti-Shale Gas Alliance
  • Youth of the Earth
  • Council of Canadians Regina Chapter
  • Council of Canadians Saskatoon Chapter

And the other independent intervenors:

  • Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation
  • David Suzuki Foundation