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).

Avoiding Dangerous Distractions such as Net-zero emissions goals

Dangerous Distractions: Canada’s carbon emissions and the pathway to net zero  is a newly published report by Marc Lee, of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – B.C.  The report argues that “Net zero has the potential to be a dangerous distraction that reduces the political pressure to achieve actual emission reductions in favour of wishful thinking about future technologies and “nature-based solutions…. This permits business-as-usual to continue for longer than it should, perpetuating the era of fossil fuels including other adverse health and environmental impacts.”  Instead, the Canadian government should invest in  proven climate change solutions such as renewal energy.

A working definition of “net zero” might be similar to that offered by the  Institute for Climate Choices: “Achieving net zero emissions requires shifting to technologies and energy systems that do not produce greenhouse gas emissions, while removing any remaining emissions from the atmosphere and storing them permanently.”  “Net zero” targets have been increasingly adopted by governments – including Canada – and by businesses – whose use has been challenged by many – notably by Friends of the Earth International in Chasing Carbon Unicorns: The Deception of Carbon Markets and Net Zero (Feb. 2021).

 Dangerous Distractions  concerns the Canadian government policy approach to a net zero goal, particularly focusing on  carbon removal technologies such as carbon capture and storage, forestry management, and the use of carbon offsets, especially the international trade in carbon offsets (such as proposed by the international Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets , founded by Mark Carney).  Lee concludes: “It’s impossible to know what carbon removal technologies of the future could achieve. For now, they are a dangerous distraction that diverts resources away from bona fide solutions. Scaling these ideas is very expensive and impractical, while perpetuating the era of fossil fuels prolongs other costly adverse impacts on human health, such as those due to air pollution.”

What follows are several recommendations, the first of which  is: “ Plan to reduce domestic emissions to “real zero” and to phase out the extraction and production of fossil fuels for export.”  He continues, “Don’t subsidize carbon capture and storage (CCS) with public funds. Require CCS for any proposed fossil fuel projects and phase in requirements for CCS in current projects”, and “Fund conservation of intact forests and nature-based solutions recognizing their important carbon, biodiversity and other co-benefits but treat this as a global public service. They should not be counted towards the 2050 target”; “Reject international carbon markets and do not plan on meeting domestic GHG targets by buying credits from outside Canada.”

The government of Canada legislated its net-zero emissions goal in Bill C-12, The  Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, introduced in November 2020 and currently before Committee.  In February 2021, Canada’s federal Minister of the Environment and Climate Change established a permanent  Net-Zero Advisory Body, consisting of fourteen experts, and also in February, the Institute for Climate Choices published a lengthly report, Canada’s Net Zero Future: Finding our way in the global transition. That report contrasts to  Dangerous Distractions by advocating for two pathways forward: “safe bets” in the short term, and in the long term, “wild cards” which include negative emission technologies that are not yet commercially available.

Government policy: Thermal coal mining not consistent with Canadian climate commitments

A press release by Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change on June 11 spells the end of thermal coal mining in Canada, stating that the Government considers that new thermal coal mining or expansion projects “are likely to cause unacceptable environmental effects and are not aligned with Canada’s domestic and international climate change commitments.”  The specific details of the new policy are here , and are summarized in “Feds toughen permit requirements for thermal coal mining projects” (National Observer, June 11) .  At the same time as the Minister released the thermal coal policy, he officially notified  Coalspur Mines Ltd. that the policy applies to its proposed, controversial thermal coal mine expansion at the Vista Coal Mine near Hinton, Alberta. (the company challenges the federal jurisdiction over its development).  Alberta launched its own review of coal-mining policies in March, with a report promised for November.   

The new federal policy is a welcome improvement, but it applies to thermal coal only, not metallurgical coal which is used for steel-making.  The Grassy Mountain metallurgical coal mining project is currently under federal-provincial review, with a decision due in June.  Andrew Nikoforuk describes the issues of the Grassy Mountain project in The Tyee, in “The Fate of the Canadian Rockies May Rest on This Decision” (May 31). The Narwhal has archived several in-depth article focused on coal in Canada, here.

A framework of six essential policies for the U.S. to THRIVE

A new report by Jeremy Brecher of the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) was released in May. Making “Build Back Better” Better: Aligning Climate, Jobs, and Justice is a cast as a “living document” to provide a framework for discussion by the labour and environmental movements.  Common Dreams summarizes it here.  Brecher begins by identifying the range of climate-related policy proposals in the U.S.:   “There are many valuable plans that have been proposed in addition to Build Back Better. The original Green New Deal resolution sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; the THRIVE (Transform, Heal, and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy) Agenda   ; the Evergreen Action Plan; the Sierra Club’s “How to Build Back Better” economic renewal plan; the AFL-CIO’s “Energy Transitions”proposals; the BlueGreen Alliance’s “Solidarity for Climate Action,” and a variety of others. All offer contributions for overall vision and for policy details.” 

The contribution of this report from LNS is to frame these policy proposals around “six essential elements” : • Managed decline of fossil fuel burning • Full-spectrum job creation • Fair access to good jobs • Labor rights and standards • Urgent and effective climate protection • No worker or community left behind.  The new report links to many of the previous LNS reports which have discussed these elements in more detail.  

Labor Network for Sustainability has endorsed the THRIVE Agenda, with its strong emphasis on climate justice.  At the end of April, The THRIVE Act was introduced in the U.S. Congress, spearheaded by Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, and supported by progressive Democrats, environmentalists, and unions.  The Rolling Stone summarized the provisions  here , stating:  “Bold” may be an understatement. While President Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan calls for spending $2 trillion over the next 10 years, the THRIVE Act green-lights the investment of $1 trillion annually. The money would go toward creating an estimated 15 million “family-sustaining” union jobs, rebuilding the nation’s physical and social infrastructure, and cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030.”

The Green New Deal Network has compiled extensive documentation of the economic studies behind the THRIVE Agenda here , based heavily on the work of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), led by Robert Pollin.  

Canada’s Climate Emergency Unit seeks to light a spark across Canada

The Climate Emergency Unit is a newly-launched initiative of the David Suzuki Institute, with the Sierra Club B.C. and the Rapid Decarbonization Group of Quebec as Strategic Partners.  The Unit is led by Seth Klein and inspired by his 2020 book, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, which argues that climate mobilization requires an effort similar to what previous generations expended against the existential threat of fascism during the Second World War. (This is an approach shared with the U.S. group The Climate Mobilization, and others). The stated goal of the CEU is “to work with all levels of government and civil society organizations – federal, provincial, local and Indigenous governments, businesses, trade unions, public institutions and agencies, and industrial/sectoral associations” – to network, educate and advocate for the mobilization ideas in A Good War, to decarbonize and electrify Canadian society and the economy,  while enhancing social justice and equity. 

In an article in Policy Options in November 2020, Klein summarizes the four hallmarks of a government committed to an urgent, emergency response:

  • It spends what it takes to win;
  • It creates new economic institutions to get the job done;
  • It shifts from voluntary and incentive-based policies to mandatory measures;
  • It tells the truth about the severity of the crisis and communicates a sense of urgency about the measures necessary to combat it.

Seth Klein was the founding Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in British Columbia, and continues to publish in the CCPA Policy Note , as well as in the Climate Emergency Unit blog, and as a columnist for The National Observer – for example, with “Feds need to treat climate crisis like a national emergency” on April  30.