Fourth Time’s a Charm? Why Harper Should Back The Climate Change Accountability Act

This week, while Canada’s energy and environment community anxiously awaited news of the federal cabinet’s decision on the Northern Gateway pipeline, something else happened in Ottawa. On Monday, Matthew Kellway, the NDP MP for Beaches-East York introduced a private member’s bill called the Climate Change Accountability Act.

If that name sounds familiar, there’s a good reason. This is the fourth time the bill has been introduced. Jack Layton first put it forward as C-377 back in 2006. It passed third reading, but was cleared by a prorogation. The second time, Bruce Hyer put it forward as C-311, which then had the sorry fate of being the first bill in recent memory to be passed by the House of Commons and summarily dispatched by the Senate. Megan Leslie and Laurin Liu tried yet again in 2011, with C-224, but by then Opposition bills had little chance under a newly instated majority government.

So here we are, with the fourth attempt, C-619. Should we expect this iteration to fare any better than its ill-starred antecedents? Probably not. But here’s why it should: if Prime Minister Harper is serious about being “frank” on climate change and resetting the climate and energy conversation in Canada, there’s no better place to start than by passing this bill.

Accountability

As anyone who follows climate policy in Canada knows, we set lots of targets but have a little trouble with the follow-through. Goals picked seemingly at random are left to languish when no one troubles with the harder work of implementation. To paraphrase the Magnetic Fields song, successive governments have been making promises they know they’ll never keep. The Conservatives (rightly) criticize the Liberals for doing this with Kyoto. But they, of course, are doing the exact same thing with their own commitments. And so the excuses and blame go round and round like a demented version of the circle game.

Few would characterize this as a particularly constructive process.

It’s evident that the Harper Government will not meet its 2020 commitment without a radical change in approach. But this pending failure has sucked some of the oxygen out of the policy debate in Canada. There are lots of reasons why our international commitment for 2020 is very important. But what really matters is not whether the government can pull one out of the hat and get our emissions to a certain number in a certain year; it’s whether Canada is setting itself up to succeed long-term in the fight against climate change.[1] That means setting our economy on a track to cut emissions deeply in the decades to come. There are more years after 2020, and each matters just as much.

This is where the Climate Change Accountability Act comes in. Like the UK’s successful Climate Change Act, C-619 aims to bring a little more common sense to target-setting in Canada. It does this by connecting the aspirational goals of the distant future with a credible pathway to actually get there. Big tasks are best tackled step-by-step. If we’re serious about transforming Canada into a low-carbon economy, this means setting interim goals to measure our progress against and developing a credible plan to meet them. (If we’re not serious, that’s good to know too.)

The Act sets an emissions goal for 2050 — essentially identical to the one the Harper Government has endorsed in the G8 — and outlines a process for charting a series of interim goals towards it. These are backed up with important transparency and accountability provisions. Here are two major reasons why this matters:

Squaring the energy and climate circle

Canada’s provinces and economic sectors are branching off in many different directions when it comes to emissions. Ottawa is making little effort to coordinate either (and, you could argue, is making matters much more fragmented through its sector-by-sector approach). And while the Harper government likes to promote Canada as an Energy Superpower, they have has yet to reconcile the rapid growth in emissions from sectors like the oilsands to their own climate change targets. In the absence of a framework outlining how Canada can honour our climate commitments while the oilsands grow at full tilt, most simply assume that we won’t. This has real consequences; a significant proportion of pipeline opposition stems from the perception that unchecked emissions growth in the oilsands is preventing meaningful action on climate change in Canada.

This problem is not going to fix itself, nor will growing interprovincial disparities in emissions. With C-619, Ottawa has a chance to address both of these and start the frank conversation about climate action that the Prime Minister seems so keen to have. Can an expanding oil and gas sector fit into our climate plan? Sure, it’s possible, if deeper cuts are made somewhere else. Like Weight Watchers, the Act doesn’t tell you what to do, it illuminates trade-offs. You’d like to make space for that ricotta, lemon and olive oil donut each morning? No problem. But you need to make changes somewhere else.

Of course, it’s politically expedient to pretend these trade-offs don’t exist. But they do. If our emissions continue to rise while our responsibilities deepen, this tension will only become more severe. By requiring governments to spell out the trade-offs implicit in their plans, the Act removes the fig leaf, a key step towards having that frank conversation. Why would the government want this? By laying out its vision of how the pieces fit together, Ottawa could do a great deal to lower temperatures in the climate and energy debate.

The Road to Paris

What’s really interesting about the fourth coming of the Climate Change Accountability Act is that it builds on a process the government has already begun behind closed doors. International talks are currently working towards a new global agreement to follow the Copenhagen Accord. The deal, to be signed in Paris next December, will cover the period after 2020. Canada is expected to propose a new international commitment by the first quarter of 2015, and explain how it fits into the bigger picture of global action against climate change. As noted already, Canada’s emissions are way off course for our current 2020 target and are projected to continue growing through 2030 without significant new policies. Any goal we propose for 2025 or 2030 will have to be more ambitious than what we’re already struggling to achieve, requiring a sharp change in direction. The Act sets an ambitious interim target for 2025. The government is free to revise it, but they have to explain why. They also have to show how it remains consistent with the longer-term goal. These are things a government striving to be seen as pragmatic and credible should welcome.

Who will decide?

The government is already working internally to shape Canada’s offer for the Paris talks. The Act would bring this debate over Canada’s role in a new global climate agreement out from the boardrooms of Langevin Block and into the public sphere. Opposition parties, including the NDP, will need to spell out their proposals too, of course. Then we can all have a nice, fact-filled and frank discussion, just in time for the election. What fun! But in all seriousness — If we can’t take back the bungling of our Kyoto and (so far) Copenhagen targets, let us at least learn from them. A well-developed national commitment backed with a credible plan to achieve it would be a significant boost to Canada’s credibility at the talks. If we’re as serious as the Environment Minister says about “pursuing a new international agreement on climate change that includes real action by all major emitters,” we need to start at home, with the major emitter in the mirror.

Trust is hard to build in the world of climate policy. It requires transparency, action and accountability — none of which this government is necessarily famous for. But by surprising its critics, they could help put the fractious climate and energy debate in Canada back on more productive ground. The government should add its own 2020 commitment, pass this bill, and let the frank conversations begin.


[1] For the record, here’s how that’s currently going: Part 1, Part 2.

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3 thoughts on “Fourth Time’s a Charm? Why Harper Should Back The Climate Change Accountability Act”

    1. Hi Greg. This is broadly similar to the kind of blog I was able to do at Pembina. The only constraint there, beyond the obvious requirements to be accurate, fair and non-partisan, was (sensibly) not speculating about intentions. This is where these posts may vary from previous work.

      Thanks for asking (and reading).

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