Is the “Canadian Net Zero Accountability Act” just more empty promises?

Updated: 4 days ago

Written by Martin Bush, November 22, 2020


When it comes to action on climate, Canada’s federal government has a long history of making empty promises. The country has missed every single emissions target it has set--starting with the pledge it made at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. More recently, under the Paris Agreement in 2015, Canada pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent compared to 2005 levels. But the latest emissions data show that the country, true to form, is hopelessly off the mark. Greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 were almost exactly where they were in 2005. You can’t get much more off-track than that. When it comes to the climate crisis, in Canada, inaction speaks louder than words.


On November 19, 2020, the Liberal government took a small tentative step in the right direction by tabling Bill C-12, an Act called the “Canadian Net Zero Accountability Act”. The purpose of the Act is to “require the setting of national targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions based on the best scientific information available and to promote transparency and accountability in relation to achieving those targets, in support of achieving net-zero emissions in Canada by 2050 and Canada’s international commitments in respect of mitigating climate change.”


Working towards net zero emissions in 2050 is a target that many countries have committed to achieving, often through legislation that writes that target into law. But targets can be illusory, particularly when they are so far ahead, unless there is a well-defined roadmap with quantified waypoints at regular intervals. For instance, Britain will ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030. In comparison, Bill C-12 is a text laden with vague promises. The first emissions reduction plan required by the Act will set a target for 2030—ten years away. This is completely unacceptable. It just kicks the accountability can farther down the road. A clear emissions reduction target for 2025 is essential.


A second and potentially more important omission is the lack of specificity for ‘net zero emissions’. In the Act, it is taken to mean that “anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases … are balanced by anthropogenic removals of greenhouse gases over a specified period of time.”

This looks like careful wording. It would better to clearly state that these removals are to be in Canada, not somewhere overseas where forests are poorly managed, and where estimations of carbon absorption, counted as emission offsets, are inaccurate and prone to exaggeration.


Moreover, the definition of net zero emissions needs to be quantified. The Europeans have set a clear target of reducing emissions by 80 percent by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. Canada needs to quantify its 2050 emissions target as a percentage of 2005 emission levels, otherwise, ‘net zero emissions’ is merely aspirational and compliance almost impossible to ascertain.


Reaction to Bill C-12 from the more progressive political parties has rightly focused on the absolute necessity to set a target for 2025. “The bill is not good enough”, said NDP MP Laurel Collins. Green party leader, Annamie Paul, was more blunt: she called it “an empty shell”. In a statement Paul called the law a “blueprint for more delays, more inaction.”

The proof of the pudding comes when the government publishes its first emission reduction plan six months after the Act comes into force. This absolutely must be a realistic plan that shows exactly how the government intends to drive Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions from present levels down to a 2025 target that is commensurate with net zero emissions in 2050. And this mid-century objective must be specified as an emissions target. We need a number, not another pledge.


What Can You Do?

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About the Author

Martin Bush is a Director of Neighbours for the Planet.

Martin has written two books about climate change and how renewable energy is the key to bringing the crisis to an end. He holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and fuel technology, and a M.Sc. in protected area management. You can also read other articles from Martin, on his website Climatezone.org.

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