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Climate accountability in action

B.C.’s report shows how to walk the talk on climate accountability

Around the world, climate accountability frameworks are working to keep governments on track to meet their climate commitments. While Canada can and has learned from countries further down this path, such as the U.K. and New Zealand, homegrown legislation provides useful guidance on how climate legislation can actually work in our country. 

Last month, B.C. tabled its first Climate Change Accountability Report. The report is a core requirement under the province’s climate accountability legislation and includes important details about the province’s progress towards its climate targets. As the federal government plans to legislate its own climate accountability framework, introduced through Bill C-12, B.C.’s approach offers important lessons. 

While the B.C. approach isn’t perfect, it demonstrates that when it comes to developing effective climate accountability frameworks, more is better. 

What’s in the report

The Climate Change Accountability Report shows that B.C. is not currently on track to meet its 2030 target of reducing emissions by 40 per cent below 2007 levels. As it stands, the province’s existing actions are projected to reduce emissions by between 22 per cent and 29 per cent below 2007 levels. 

While B.C. is far from the first jurisdiction in Canada to reveal its policies are out of sync with its climate targets, the report’s release shows the legislation is working as promised.

Having a formal, legislated requirement for transparent monitoring and reporting allows the public to better understand and evaluate government’s progress against its climate commitments, which enhances accountability. It also lets governments who are taking meaningful action to meet their targets demonstrate to the public that they are implementing policy consistent with their commitments. 

Critically for B.C., its annual reporting creates regular opportunities for course correction. 

And while the report does not detail how the province plans to close the gap, the government has committed to release a roadmap to 2030 by the end of 2021, taking into account advice from its independent advisory body. This isn’t just a feel-good promise by government—it’s the law. Producing an action plan to meet targets based on guidance received by the advisory body is one of the main functions of climate accountability laws. 

Lessons for federal climate accountability 

B.C.’s example offers valuable lessons for the rest of Canada. Of course, this type of legislation isn’t a silver bullet, and can’t automatically get a jurisdiction on track. But the transparency and accountability such laws provide—especially through their reporting requirements—is valuable. As we’ve seen in the U.K.,  getting back on track starts with knowing how far you’ve strayed from your goal. 

In November 2020, the federal government introduced draft legislation to establish a federal climate accountability framework, complete with legislated long-term and interim targets, an independent advisory body, and a process for reporting on progress.

Yet as it’s written now, the draft federal climate accountability law comes up a little short. For example, it only sets interim five-year targets one at time (rather than 10 to 15 years in advance), reducing certainty and predictability about the path forward. It appears to define interim milestones in terms of emissions reduction targets, rather than carbon budgets (this matters because carbon budgets put a limit on the total emissions that can be released in a given period, which is a more meaningful representation of a jurisdiction’s contribution to climate change mitigation than the emissions it releases in a single year). And, it establishes a relatively weak role for its independent advisory body. 

But perhaps most importantly, its monitoring and reporting structure is insufficient. Whereas B.C.’s legislation mandates annual reporting (albeit by the government itself, rather than by an independent body as done in other jurisdictions), the federal equivalent only requires one report (by both the government and the Commissioner on the Environment and Sustainable Development) per five-year target period. While an independent advisory body will be tasked with publishing an annual report outlining its advice to the federal government, this function is not a substitute for annual oversight and progress reporting. 

Simply put, it will be much more challenging for the federal government to course correct when it’s only checking its progress every five years. Not to mention, the suggested reporting approach is inconsistent with international best practice. If the proposed federal climate accountability law is to be an effective tool for keeping Canada on track, this part of the draft legislation needs a rethink. 

The more climate accountability, the better

Beyond the technical details of who reports on progress and when, B.C.’s experience also sheds light on how provincial and territorial climate accountability frameworks can work alongside a federal equivalent. In a decentralized federation, a federal climate accountability framework is inherently limited in terms of what it can legally impose on the part of provinces and territories. Therefore, as the Institute has previously argued, provinces and territories should be encouraged to implement their own accountability frameworks, like B.C. and Manitoba have already done. Having multiple levels of government setting targets, backed by their own policies, can help ensure that all hands are on deck for meeting tough climate goals. It can also help surface tensions and inconsistencies between plans and targets, creating the foundation for (albeit challenging) conversations about what steps are needed and where and ultimately achieving greater collaboration and coordination across the country.  

Sometimes less is more, but in the case of climate accountability frameworks, more is better. More reporting on progress. More opportunities for course correction. And more clarity at all levels of government about what’s needed to take meaningful action on climate change.