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Happy birthday, Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act!

Two years after the adoption of the federal act, climate accountability laws across Canada are accelerating and tracking progress.

It’s much easier to get to the right destination with a good map in hand. When it comes to reducing carbon emissions, climate accountability laws are the map. Well-designed accountability laws “mark the way” toward climate goals by establishing targets, governance structures, and planning processes, all while holding governments accountable by requiring regular stock-taking.

On June 29, 2021, Canada got its own national climate accountability law through the adoption of the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act (CNZEAA). This is a special moment for 440 Megatonnes, since transparent assessments of climate progress are the heart of our project. We’re marking the second anniversary of this important law by taking a closer look at what it has accomplished, what this year has in store for the law, and how other governments across Canada are using climate accountability legislation to drive and track their own progress.

2023 is an important year in the federal accountability process

The principles behind the CNZEAA are simple: set goals, make plans to achieve them, and report on progress along the way. Let’s look at each element in turn.

First, the CNZEAA sets clear goalposts for climate policy, formalizing Canada’s commitment to hit net zero by 2050 and establishing two nearer-term targets for 2026 and 2030. It requires the government to set targets for future years on a predetermined schedule.

Second, the law requires the government to issue plans for hitting each one of its targets. The first of these, Canada’s 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan (or ERP), came out last year.

Third, the government has to publish reports on its progress, with the first one due later this year. Since it’s not best practice for governments to fill out their own report cards, the CNZEAA allows for some external oversight, creating an independent body to advise the government and requiring the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development to report on the implementation of government policy.

The CNZEAA still leaves some important gaps. While it requires the government to publish various reports on emissions and climate change, it contains no requirement to plan for adapting to climate change. Though the act requires the government to consider the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and consult Indigenous peoples, Indigenous groups that participated in the ERP engagement process commented that this process was inadequate. And unlike some of its peers, Canada’s climate accountability law does not require independent assessments of the government’s climate plans or progress reports.

That’s where the Canadian Climate Institute steps in. In 2022, the Institute conducted its own independent assessment of Canada’s 2030 ERP, and this year it will do the same for the federal government’s progress report. Here at 440 Megatonnes, the emissions pathways tracker assesses whether federal policies put Canada on track toward net zero and where there is a need for more action.

Despite some of these shortcomings, after two years on the books we can say that the federal climate accountability law has created the foundation for a cycle of policy planning and course correction. At the provincial and territorial level, it’s a considerably different story.

Three-quarters of Canada’s emissions come from provinces and territories without a legal target for 2030

Only six Canadian provinces and territories have climate legislation that establishes an emissions target or planning process for 2030. A seventh province, Manitoba, has a climate accountability law but its current climate plan only extends to 2027. The remaining provinces and territories don’t have accountability laws, which means that 75 per cent of Canada’s emissions come from provinces and territories without legal emissions targets for 2030. Some of these governments have a target that isn’t set in law or a longer-term net zero target, while others have no target or plan for 2030 at all.

This is a problem because provinces and territories hold some powerful levers in the fight against climate change, including jurisdiction over natural resource development and electricity generation. In provinces without climate accountability laws, there is no formal mechanism to encourage provinces to align policy levers with emissions targets, and no requirement for governments to report transparently on their climate action. Climate progress is not impossible without accountability laws, but it is certainly less likely, and much harder to track.

Fortunately, the Canadian policy landscape seems to be trending toward greater accountability. Just three years ago, only three provinces had climate accountability frameworks; now six provinces and one territory have them. And municipal governments are picking up on the trend. In April, the City of Toronto proposed a “carbon accountability system” that is explicitly intended to follow best practices articulated by the Canadian Climate Institute. It will establish five-year carbon budgets, create a planning and reporting cycle, and outline how the city can—and cannot—use carbon offsets to hit its targets.

Good governance is fundamental to successful climate action

Climate accountability legislation does not promise an easy fix to climate change, since elections can empower governments to change laws or chart a new course. But climate accountability frameworks help to focus governments on the urgent priority of reducing emissions and direct public attention toward where we are and are not making progress. In British Columbia, for example, emissions modelling from the government’s 2021 climate accountability report showed the province was not on track to its targets, which spurred the province to strengthen its climate plan

As we mark two years of federal climate accountability, we are also marking the broadening use of these accountability frameworks across all orders of government. For the progress-tracking team at 440 Megatonnes, that makes today a milestone well worth celebrating.

Ross Linden-Fraser is a Senior Research Associate with the Canadian Climate Institute.

Last updated October 2023