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Shine a little light

How should Canada share jurisdiction over climate policy in a federation?

Canadian climate policy conversations are slowly starting to re-emerge from the (rightfully) all-consuming COVID crisis. In particular, two recent papers—including one from us—propose climate “accountability frameworks” as a link between long-term climate objectives and near-term policy planning and implementation. The idea is to create a process that can help define credible pathways to long-term targets that otherwise seem far away and abstract. (For more details, see our report Marking our Way and this blog by Anna Kanduth and Justin Leroux).  

While the two reports offer similar advice in some respects, they also differ in an important and interesting way: how to square the circle of shared jurisdiction over climate policy in a federation.  

Everybody loves the UK Climate Change Act

In many ways, we can credit the United Kingdom’s Climate Change Act for the proliferation of accountability framework and climate legislation internationally. A long-time favourite of climate policy wonks, the 2008 Act enshrined “carbon budgets” in UK legislation. It also established the UK Committee on Climate Change, an independent, non-partisan, expert body that provides advice on the UK’s emissions pathways and tracks its progress in achieving them.  

Since then, multiple jurisdictions around the world have followed suit, including France, Germany, Scotland, Wales, and New Zealand, to name a few. Here in Canada, Manitoba implemented climate accountability legislation through its Green Plan Implementation Act, as did British Columbia, through its amended Climate Change Accountability Act

The challenges of shared jurisdictions over climate policy

It makes sense that the federal government would consider the same approach in Canada. But multiple orders of government—federal, Indigenous, provincial, territorial, municipal—have their own climate policies, targets, and even accountability frameworks. How can international best practices apply in this context?  

Here’s where our new report proposes a different approach than a parallel paper from a coalition of environmental organizations. That paper suggests that federal legislation should define both national and sub-national emissions budgets. Ideally, that division would be achieved cooperatively and informed by advice from independent experts. But if necessary, the federal government would divvy-up allowable emissions across provinces and territories. The paper notes, “if sub-national governments are not all publicly answerable for any GHG reductions, responsibility for those key climate policies may fall away, significantly weakening the entire framework.” 

While we agree with several other recommendations in the coalition’s paper, this one deserves deeper discussion.  

The challenges of top-down accountability  

Ultimately, accountability frameworks provide only incremental—not perfect—certainty about future policy changes. Future parliaments can pass new legislation, untying their hands from climate obligations. And while a government’s failure to achieve climate milestones may create risk of lawsuits, the main consequences of failure remain reputational and political (not to mention the worsening of the climate crisis). 

As a result, federally determined provincial and territorial budgets might actually serve to transfer political risk and accountability away from provinces and territories, putting the monkey squarely on the back of the federal government. Defining subnational budgets in federal legislation could also entrench divisive intergovernmental debates, rather than encourage much-needed collaboration. They could create disincentives for provinces and territories to implement their own ambitious policies—or to accept federal policy. And that means they might actually undermine the long-term stability of a Canadian framework.  

In other words, accountability frameworks are not silver bullets. They are not substitutes for increasingly ambitious policy that is sufficiently stringent to achieve long-term targets. They cannot unilaterally create a cross-partisan consensus (the UK’s political consensus on climate precedes the Climate Change Act). They cannot—on their own—solve long-standing challenges of distributing emissions-reducing effort across the country.

Conditions for success

A Canadian accountability framework can, can however, create the conditions for success in the long-term with a more subtle approach.  

The federal government should define legally binding milestones only for the country as a whole. It should, however, provide technical detail in its analysis and projections—for information only—about how provincial and territorial emissions might look under different policy scenarios.  

It should also create incentives for provinces and territories—and indeed, other orders of government—to implement their own accountability frameworks, backed by their own policies. 

Canada is most likely to achieve stable, durable policy that is sufficiently stringent to achieve our targets if multiple levels of governments are contributing with their own policies. That means different orders of governments relying on different policy instruments, according to their own legislation, regulation, and analysis. It means different regions tailoring policy designs according to their own local emissions challenges, opportunities, and context.  

The path to coherent policy and long-term climate success

Does all this raise the prospect of a patchwork of policies, perhaps with gaps and omissions across the country?  Yes. 

But accountability frameworks can help here too. The road to policy across the country that is both coherent and sufficiently stringent can’t avoid messiness and challenging conversations. In fact, surfacing those issues through transparent information about projected emissions and policy plans and tackling them head-on through constructive—if challenging—forums for discussion are necessary steps.  

Perhaps counter-intuitively, climate accountability frameworks are most powerful not as a stick, but as a flashlight. To collectively get to our long-term climate commitments, we need to shine a little more light on each step we take.

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