Groundbreaking moment as Canada passes climate accountability law

Down to the wire on June 29, before adjourning for summer recess, the Senate of Canada passed Bill C-12, An Act respecting transparency and accountability in Canada’s efforts to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.   C-12 had been approved in the House of Commons on June 22, following a determined campaign by environmental advocacy groups, described by Climate Action Network-Canada here . And Andrew Gage of West Coast Environmental Law wrote, urging passage in  “To amend or not to amend – Why Bill C-12 should be passed even though it could be better” (June 16) .

The reactions of many of those groups are compiled in “Senate Vote on Climate Accountability Act Counters ‘Decades of Broken Promises’”  (The Energy Mix, June 30)   – including Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment,  Climate Action Network-Canada, Ecojustice,  Leadnow, and West Coast Environmental Law. Their general consensus was that the bill is far from perfect, but as Catherine Abreu of CAN_RAC states, it is : “a groundbreaking moment and ushers Canada into a new era of accountability to its climate commitments.”   EcoJustice provides an excellent summary and reaction here , pointing out the positives, such as clearer, more detailed GHG reduction targets, improved timelines, and a requirement for 5-year reviews. However, many remain concerned about “the independence of its advisory body, transparency around the role of provinces and territories in achieving Canada’s climate targets, and how we define the term “net-zero.” ”

The full Legislative history of C-12 is here, including links to the meetings of and briefs to the House Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development, and the Senate Pre-Study of the Bill. For an excellent summary, see “How Bill C-12 aims to guide Canada to net-zero” (National Observer, June 30).

Climate Change Accountability Report shows rising emissions – B.C. government announces new GHG reduction targets

The government of British Columbia issued a press release on December 15 2020,   announcing new carbon reduction targets and the release of the first-ever Climate Change Accountability Report , highlighting progress on the CleanBC action plan.  From the press release: “The new emission target requires greenhouse gases in B.C. to be 16% below 2007 levels by 2025. It provides a benchmark on the road to B.C.’s legislated emission targets for 2030, 2040 and 2050 of 40%, 60% and 80% below 2007 levels, respectively. The Province will also set sectoral targets, which will be established before March 31, 2021, and will develop legislation to ensure B.C. reaches net-zero emissions by 2050.”

“Climate Change Accountability Report discloses that B.C. carbon emissions rose three percent in 2018” in The Straight  (Dec. 16) highlights some findings which the government downplayed – for example,  in 2018, “Gross emissions reached 67.9 million tonnes. That’s up a whopping 7.3 million tonnes from 2010, which went unremarked in the report.” The article also quotes from an interview with Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman, pointing out that “Heyman also admitted that the government has never done any modelling of carbon emissions that goes beyond LNG Canada’s phase one portion of its plant in Kitimat.”

The response by the Sierra Club B.C. summarized the reactions of environmental advocacy groups, which commended the government for the transparency of the Climate Accountability Report, while criticizing the fossil-friendly policies which have led to missed GHG reduction targets.   Reiterating the long-standing criticisms over LNG, notably, by David Hughes of the CCPA-B.C in a July 2020 report,   the Sierra Club B.C. states: “It is clear that if we continue to allow the growth of oil and gas extraction in this province we won’t ever be able to get climate pollution under control” …. “The sooner we begin a serious conversation about the transition away from fracking and all other forms of fossil fuels, the less disruptive and painful the transition will be for workers, our communities, and the most vulnerable among us.”

The Pembina Institute calls the report  “sobering” and “a much-needed wake-up call”, while calling for improvements.  “The report is inconsistent in its provision of details, which makes it difficult to assess whether or not climate programs should be continued, enhanced, redesigned, or replaced to effectively and efficiently make progress to targets. For a fulsome picture of climate progress, we expect future accountability reports to provide more clarity. We need to see the emissions reductions achieved to date by specific programs; annual budget allocations for programs and the corresponding (anticipated) emissions reductions; how the government has acted on the advice of the Climate Solutions Council; and what course corrections will be made to meet our climate targets. Once interim and sector-specific targets are established, the report should evaluate progress against these goals as well.”

British Columbia as part of the myth of eco-friendly Cascadia

Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia  is a new investigative series launched on January 11 with an article published in The Tyee under the title “Cascadia Was Poised to Lead on Climate. Can It Still?”.  (At the InvestigateWest website, the same article appeared as “A Lost Decade: How climate action fizzled in Cascadia”) . It documents the rise of GHG emissions in the jurisdictions which compose Cascadia: British Columbia and the states of Washington and Oregon. The article summarizes political developments, summarizes the development of carbon taxes, and argues that weak decarbonization policies  – especially in the transportation sector- are behind the failure to reduce emissions. “Between full economic recovery in 2012 and 2018, the most recent reporting year, California and Cascadia both booked a robust 26 percent increase in GDP. Over that period California drove its annual emissions down by more than 5 percent. Washington’s emissions —and Cascadia’s as a whole — ballooned by over 7 percent.”   According to the article, for the period 2012 to 2018, “vehicle emissions had ballooned by over 10% in Washington and Oregon and more than 29% in BC (in contrast California’s grew only 5% during that period.)”

From the article:

“So why is environmentally-conscious Cascadia stuck in first gear? The consensus answer from experts and activists interviewed by InvestigateWest: a shortage of political will. The region has been beset by partisan wrangling, fear of job losses, disagreements over how to ensure equity for already polluted and marginalized communities, and misinformation obscuring the full potential of well-documented solutions. “The constraining factor has always been political feasibility, not economic feasibility,” says political economist and energy modeling expert Mark Jaccard, a professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, BC, and a former chair of the British Columbia Utilities Commission.”

The series Getting to Zero: Decarbonizing Cascadia  is the result of a  year-long reporting initiative led by InvestigateWest, in partnership with Grist, Crosscut, The Tyee, the South Seattle Emerald, The Evergrey, and Jefferson Public Radio.  It will run throughout 2021, aiming to document and analyse the political and economic forces and barriers to climate action in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, generally perceived as one of the most eco-friendly regions in the world.

Lawyers fighting for climate change through litigation and legislative reform

Global Trends in Climate Litigation:  2020 Snapshot, published on July 3, is the latest annual review by researchers at the Grantham Institute in the U.K. .It covers the period of May 2019 to May 2020, reporting on the statistics (e.g  26 new climate change cases brought outside the U.S. in 2019), and analyzing trends in the strategies and types of arguments used in climate litigation. The report particularly focuses on the role of human rights arguments (as pioneered in the Urgenda case, but also used in many of the youth-led court challenges); how litigation has been blended with direct protesting in some countries; and the variety of strategies being used to bring lawsuits against corporate emitters of greenhouse gases, the ‘Carbon Majors”.  Although the report concludes that litigation has not resulted in widespread climate policy change so far, it discusses key developments such as the final resolution of the Urgenda case in December 2019, which demonstrates the enormous potential of litigation: “Depending on the lawsuit and strategies employed, litigation might impact on government policy, company profits, share prices and broader public framings around climate change. However, litigation as a governance strategy is costly and risky, and it takes place alongside other political and social mobilisation efforts.”  A summary of the Grantham study appeared in The Energy Mix (August 24), headlined: “Litigation drives global policy change on climate, study shows”. A related academic analysis is available as an NBER Working Paper:  Eskander, Fankhauser, and Setzer . “Global Lessons from Climate Change Legislation and Litigation”  a paper presented at the  2nd Annual NBER Environmental and Energy Policy and the Economy Conference, June 2020.

The Global Trends 2020 Snapshot report is based on two publicly available databases of case law and legal documents: Climate Change Laws of the World database maintained by the Grantham Institute in the U.K. (with 374 court cases in 36 countries, including 23 from Canada but excluding the U.S.; and the Climate Case Chart database maintained by the Sabin Center at Columbia University in the U.S. (featuring 1,213 U.S. climate lawsuits). The Sabin Center also maintains a smaller database of non-U.S. cases, which includes 24 Canadian cases. 

Advocating for Legislative Reform:

As noted in the Grantham 2020 Snapshot report, 80% of global climate litigation occurs in the United States. In addition to litigation, Canadian legal activists also focus on legislative reform: for example, West Coast Environmental Law, Ecojustice, Équiterre, working with Climate Action Network Canada, Environmental Defence and the Pembina Institute released their latest proposals for climate accountability, in the form of a June report, A New Canadian Climate Accountability Act: Building the legal foundation to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. It proposes five “pillars” for a new statute that would include. long-term, ambitious GHG reduction targets for 2030 and 2050; 5-year carbon budgets; 5-year impact reports tabled before Parliament to assess the risks of current and predicted climate impacts; and an arm’s-length expert climate advisory committee to monitor and report on progress. The recently-formed Canadian Institute for Climate Choices supported this goal with its own report in June, Marking the Way: How Legislating Climate Milestones Clarifies Pathways to Long-Term Goal . The press release provides a summary of the report; it is accompanied by case studies of the existing climate accountability legislation in the provinces of British Columbia and Manitoba, as well as the U.K and New Zealand, considered model jurisdictions.

U.S. Lawyers offer Model Laws for Decarbonization:

In 2019 Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization in the United States was published by the Washington-based Environmental Law Institute, in which 59 legal experts offer over 1,000 recommendations for federal, state, local and private action to drastically reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. A  161-page Summary of Legal Pathways was published in an effort to take the message outside the “expert” community – besides succinct summaries of the recommended legal changes, it includes an index by actor – providing recommendations for action by “Companies, Associations, NGOs, and Other Private Entities”. Now, a new website seeks to enable more activism: the Legal Pathways to Deep Decarbonization website, hosted by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University and the Commonwealth Law School of Widener University, with provides a compilation of actual laws, and model laws drafted and peer-reviewed pro bono by volunteer lawyers. All can be downloaded and customized for other jurisdictions. Some examples: regarding energy efficiency in buildings: the existing St. Louis’ Building Energy Performance Standard 2020. So far, model laws posted on the website deal chiefly with green transportation, for example:  Legislation Mandating Consideration of Greenhouse Gas Reduction as Part of Metropolitan Transportation Planning.  For more on this project, read “Lawyers wanted to help decarbonize the U.S. economy” in Resilience (August 27)   .

Victoria B.C. joins the movement for climate accountability, demanding compensation from Big Oil companies for climate change impacts

On October 12, the Council of Victoria B.C. voted unanimously to send a Climate Accountability Letter to twenty companies, including Exxon, Chevron and Shell, asking them to cover the costs the community is likely to  incur to plan for or recover from the impacts of climate change.  The motion also included an agreement to call upon fellow local governments across Vancouver Island, British Columbia and Canada to write similar letters. Such letters are part of  the Climate Law in our Hands campaign launched by West Coast Environmental Law and almost 50 other groups  in January 2017.

Accountability Letters may be seen as largely symbolic, but are a first step in the movement for legal action against these “Carbon Majors”, which is the goal of the Climate Law in our Hands campaign.  The campaign and the movement is based on the work of Richard Heede, whose 2013 research identified 90 entities (producers of oil, natural gas, coal, and cement) that are collectively responsible for almost two thirds of human-caused greenhouse gases historically. Heede updated his research in July 2017 –  naming the 10 oil and gas companies who are responsible for 26% of all fossil fuel emissions since 1988.  See the Climate Accountability Institute , where Heede is Director, or see  West Coast Environmental Law for a spreadsheet with details about each company, as well as model letters for municipalities who want to join the campaign. Andrew Gage of WCEL compiled an excellent overview of new research and legal developments about Climate Accountability in September .

In September, San Francisco and Oakland, California became the latest and largest cities to sue the Carbon Majors: see “California leads the way: San Francisco and Oakland the latest to sue fossil fuel companies” . (They  join the California counties of Marin, San Mateo and San Diego and the city of Imperial Beach).  The press release from the City Attorney’s Office outlines their case against Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, BP and Royal Dutch Shell  : “The lawsuits ask the courts to hold the defendants jointly and severally liable for creating, contributing to and/or maintaining a public nuisance, and to create an abatement fund for each city to be paid for by defendants to fund infrastructure projects necessary for San Francisco and Oakland to adapt to global warming and sea level rise. The total amount needed for the abatement funds is not known at this time but is expected to be in the billions of dollars.”