The Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act: A Placebo Law?
Note: A fuller, more detailed version of this post will be published in the December issue of the Energy Regulation Quarterly, available here. I thank the editors of the ERQ for their careful editing and assistance with citations. However, any errors in either version of this article remain my responsibility.
With the rise of social media, governments have realized that most journalists read media releases and Twitter, not statutes. And the public reads what journalists write. This has led to the enactment of some statutes which are more like public relations statements than real laws.
For example, on June 30, 2021, Canada’s Department of Environment and Climate Change issued a news release announcing that Bill C-12, the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act (hereafter, the “Accountability Act”) had become the law in Canada. The headline of the news release was:
“Government of Canada legislates climate accountability with first net-zero emissions law.”
The Trend to Feel-Good Laws
More Canadian laws now contain lengthy preambles, vague or circular definitions, little substantive content and glowing descriptions in Ministers’ speeches of what these laws are supposed to accomplish. The strategy is to make the public feel good about the government’s virtuous intentions without arousing too much political resistance. Such a law is a “feel-good law,” a legislative placebo rather than an effective piece of legislation.
The well-known placebo effect in drug testing is being copied by politicians in laws designed to create the illusion that essentially symbolic, useless or even harmful laws with nice-sounding language will be a cure for our ills.
The June 30, 2021 News Release on the Accountability Act
After summarizing the targets and commitments in the legislation the government’s news release emphasizes that “The Act also provides accountability and transparency…” in a variety of ways.
The news release quotes the Minister as saying
“We promised to legislate net-zero emissions by 2050 and put in place legally-binding targets, and yesterday we delivered on that promise.…”
But legislating that something should happen doesn’t mean it actually can or will happen.
The Law’s Stated “Purpose” Clause
“The purpose of this Act is to require the setting of national targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions based on the best scientific information available and to promote transparency and accountability in achieving those targets, in support of achieving net-zero-emissions in Canada by 2050 and Canada’s international commitments in respect of mitigating climate change.”
The stated purpose cannot be the real purpose. So what is the real Purpose?
What is the Real Purpose of the Act?
It is Not the Setting of National Targets
The Harper government set greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals for the Paris Agreement as part of government policy, without any legislation. These goals were, until recently, accepted by the Trudeau government, also without any legislation. What changed? Why is this legislation being enacted now? It cannot be because emission reduction targets require legislation.
It is probably for two political reasons. First, because the legislation will make it more difficult politically for future governments to reduce, or to fail to meet the legislated goals. And second, because legislating the target will enable lawsuits to enforce the government’s compliance with its own law.
An increasing number of court cases are brought by environmental advocates, sometimes representing children, arguing that challenges to government climate policy are legal questions that should be decided by judges. These plaintiffs demand that governments carry out the advocates’ proposed climate policies. If these policies are legislated winning such litigation becomes a lot easier.
Government defendants in such lawsuits may be glad to be sued, and may not defend the suit vigorously. If the legislated emission targets are not being met this litigation enables the government to justify its actual achievements as realistic compared to the claims in the lawsuits. It also enables the government to justify settling the litigation by taking legislative action such as increasing the carbon tax. Given the facilitation of lawsuits, the Accountability Act might well be nicknamed the “Sue Me Please Act.”
It is Not To Promote Transparency and Accountability
The government seeks to sell this law as adding an important element of transparency and accountability to its reporting requirements. But the government can be, and should always be, transparent and accountable without passing a new law every time they wish to be transparent and accountable.
The federal government is already committed to file reports with the United Nations (UN) every two years on all major climate change measures undertaken by federal and provincial governments. It is also required to file reports every five years on emissions reduction measures under the 2015 Paris Agreement, to which Canada is a signatory. These reports are not secret, but publicly available on the website of Environment and Climate Change Canada. Furthermore, the Commissioner on the Environment and Sustainable Development (a branch of the Office of the Auditor General of Canada) also issues periodic reports on the performance of federal departments and the government as a whole in meeting their program objectives. Although the new legislation is presented as creating transparency and accountability, that cannot be its real purpose because even without this legislation there is already complete transparency, which creates accountability.
That said, the legally required information will not be transparent on the single most important policy issue: the cost to Canadians. The rate and manner of CO2 reduction will determine the cost to you and me and our children and grandchildren. Without knowing the costs, year by year, there is no way to judge whether the costs are affordable and the benefits are significant.
The claimed benefits are (i) the reduction in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, and (ii) that this domestic reduction will reduce the adverse effects of climate change on the Canadian climate and weather. However, Canadians have, for almost two centuries, relied on hydrocarbons to eat, heat and light their homes or transport themselves, their children and their food. To eliminate all of these essential sources of life in under 30 years is unprecedented, with a high risk of failure. Embracing this radical change without disclosing its costs and risks is at best opaque and at worst misleading. It is inconsistent with the professed objectives of greater transparency and accountability.
The rush to achieve net-zero will create winners and losers. Pursuing the target will make all forms of transportation, home heating, electricity and food much more costly for all Canadians. This will particularly hurt low income consumers and smaller businesses. At the international level, as the West reduces its purchases of coal and natural gas, it makes these fuels cheaper for China to purchase, further enhancing China’s international competitive position. In effect, the developed countries of the West are off-shoring emissions to the developing countries, thereby off-shoring production, jobs and investment, while creating no net CO2 reduction. In the global economic competition the winners are likely to be the ones who reduce their emissions last and by the least. The emission reduction leaders will be the losers.
University of Manitoba Professor emeritus Vaclav Smil is a globally recognized energy transitions authority. In his several books and articles he has shown that the number of years that it has historically taken for new sources of energy to surpass just 25 per cent of energy use in a country is typically 50–70 years. It takes many more decades to become a dominant energy source.
Professor Smil recently wrote:
“The most important fact is that during those decades of rising concerns about global warming the world has been running towards fossil carbon, not moving away from it…emissions have nearly tripled in Asia, largely because the Chinese combustion of fossil fuels has almost quadrupled. As a result, global emissions of CO2 increased by more than 60 per cent since 1992, setting yet another record in 2018. …
Designing hypothetical roadmaps outlining complete elimination of fossil carbon from the global energy supply by 2050 is nothing but an exercise in wishful thinking that ignores fundamental physical realities.…The complete decarbonization of the global energy supply will be an extremely challenging undertaking of an unprecedented scale and complexity that will not be accomplished – even in the case of sustained, dedicated and extraordinarily costly commitment – in a matter of a few decades.”
It is easy for politicians in any country to seek power with promises to fight climate change that cannot be kept until long after they’re out of office. China has recently said that it will reach net zero by 2060, 40 years from now. By that date, if he is still alive, President Xi Jinping will be 106 years old. By the 2050 US and Canadian target dates President Joe Biden would be 107, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 78. None of them will be leaders of their countries at these times. If their promises are impossible to keep they will not bear the political consequences.
It is Not to Save the Paris Agreement
Canada has made no Paris Agreement commitment requiring us to legislate for any level of greenhouse gas emissions reductions. The Paris Agreement has been widely misrepresented in the Western media, and therefore, widely misunderstood by Canadians. It has repeatedly – and wrongly – been described as a top down international agreement to which individual nations have made binding commitments to reduce their emissions, thereby limiting global average temperature increase by 2100 to 2°C, and preferably, 1.5°C. The Agreement is actually a bottom up agreement that set no requirements for any reductions; it permits each of the 195 country signatories to set its own “nationally determined contribution” (NDC). This “contribution” can be to increase emissions if the country so wishes, and many large emitters have chosen to do so.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, mostly of the developed West, represent only approximately one third of global emissions. They have presented various reduction NDCs. But the developing countries, mostly of Asia and Africa, already represent approximately two thirds of global emissions, and rising. Most of these countries have not promised to reduce their emissions because such reductions would jeopardize their efforts to reduce the poverty of their people, many millions of whom still have no access to electricity. Their determination to increase their emissions will, in the aggregate, cancel out the promised decreases.
Since 2010, most of the CO2 emissions growth has occurred in the non-OECD countries. In the plans that the developing countries have submitted to the UN, they have generally conditioned any future emissions reductions (or even reductions in the rate of increase) on massive funding from the OECD countries. On March 13, 2021, Pakistan’s prime minister warned that developing countries would need about US$400 billion per annum in climate finance support to shift toward low carbon development pathways. Yet developed countries have thus far failed to deliver, even once, the $100 billion per annum they promised under the Paris Agreement. Part of the reason for the funding reluctance is the sheer amount demanded, and part is because of skepticism that each of the recipient countries spends its funding to reduce emissions effectively and efficiently. India has called the West’s 2050 net-zero targets “pie-in-the-sky.” India’s energy minister said that poor nations want to continue using fossil fuels and the rich countries “can’t stop it”.
Here is a simplified analogy to consider. Assume, hypothetically, that 195 people are gathered in a large room in Paris, for the purpose of fundraising. The host announces the target to be raised, a painfully large amount for the assembled individuals. No one is compelled to contribute anything, but everyone is encouraged to make generous pledges. However, there are two rules. First, anyone can chose whether to put money into the fund or take money out of the fund, as they wish: from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. The other rule is that the proceeds will be donated to the needy among the 195 present. What will the net amount in the fund be when all the pledges are received? Perhaps a lot like the actual result of the Paris Agreement, i.e., almost nothing.
When we add up and net out the nationally determined reductions and increases under the Paris Agreement, even if all of the countries fully comply with their NDCs (which few have done so far), the net impact on global temperature increase by 2100 would be insignificantly small, within the range of measurement error. The 2°C target is political, not scientific, and the UN adopted it as the aspirational goal of the Agreement. After 2015, as the NDCs were published, it very quickly became obvious, based on what countries actually committed to, that the goal cannot be reached. Too many large countries promised to increase, not decrease their emissions. Thus, there is no real connection between the 2°C goal and NDCs, and therefore, no basis for believing that if all countries comply with the Paris Agreement the global average temperature increase will be limited to 2°C.
There is growing recognition of the huge disconnect between the aspirational 2°C goal and what the 195 signatory nations have actually said they intend to do. As Nobel prize-winning economist William Nordhaus has written in the American Economic Association Journal of August 2018:
“The reality is that most countries are on a business-as-usual (BAU) trajectory of minimal policies to reduce their emissions.… The international target for climate change with a limit of 2°C appears to be infeasible with reasonably accessible technologies even with very ambitious abatement strategies.”
Regardless of what Canada does, the Paris Agreement, like its predecessor accord, Kyoto (entered into force on 16 February 2005), is already evidently a failure. And Canada hasn’t been helping.
According to Canada’s 2021 National Inventory Report (NIR) on greenhouse gas emissions submitted to the UN, our national emissions in 1990 were 600 Mt of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e). By 2017 they had increased to 716 MtCO2e (+19.3%) and by 2019, to 730 MtCO2e (+21.7%). Since 1990, in every year but three, Canada’s emissions have increased. As we emerge from the pandemic lockdowns further increases are likely, added to by population growth.
What the Accountability Act Does Not Require
The Accountability Act requires the federal government to set targets and report on the extent to which it is meeting those targets. But it does not require Canada to meet the 2050 target. Nor is there any penalty set out for failure to do so.
Uncertainty and Confusion in the Federal Media Release
Another federal media release (August 13, 2021), optimistically titled “Net-Zero Emissions by 2050”, announced that in February 2021 Ottawa established an independent advisory group of experts to consult with Canadians and provide the government with advice on the best pathways to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. This begs the question: why is the government enshrining in legislation a target that requires an advisory body to show it how to meet?
In explaining what achieving net-zero means, the media release states:
“Achieving net-zero emissions means our economy either emits no greenhouse gas emissions or offsets its emissions, for example, through actions such as tree planting or employing technologies that can capture carbon before it is released into the air. This is essential to keeping the world safe and livable for our kids and grandkids.”
There are two problems with this paragraph: the first sentence and the second sentence.
As for the first sentence, there is no technology that would enable the entire Canadian economy to emit no CO2. Today, and for the foreseeable future, there are no battery or hydrogen-powered passenger jet aircraft, oceangoing cargo ships, large transport trucks or farm tractors. Planting trees is not really a long-term solution because it may take decades for them to grow to a substantial height, and, although they absorb CO2 during their growth period, when they die they decompose, releasing the CO2 they have absorbed. As for carbon capture, although it is technically feasible and being done, it is not yet economic on anywhere near the scale that would be required to offset Canada’s reasonably foreseeable emissions. Nor is it possible to capture CO2 “before” is released into the air from the literally millions of sources of CO2 emissions in Canada – every home, every car, every office and factory would need to have some sort of effective carbon capture device. These do not yet exist, even on paper.
The second sentence appears to equate Canada with the entire world. If Canada achieves net-zero, will that really keep the climate created by the emissions of the entire world safe and livable for our kids and grandkids in Canada? Of course not. Canada represents only 1.6 per cent of global CO2 emissions. The remaining 98.4 percent determines the planetary climate. That’s why global climate change it is a collective action problem not an individual nation problem.
Climate Change is a Collective Action Problem
The media release also seems confused about climate change. The CO2 we emit doesn’t stay above Canada, and the CO2 other nations emit doesn’t stay out of Canada. There is no CO2 wall around the country. Therefore, if “keeping the world safe and livable for our kids and grandkids” requires reaching net-zero, that means net-zero for the entire world. It is ignorant and misleading for our government’s media release to imply that if Canada can achieve net zero that will keep the world safe and livable for our kids and grandkids, regardless of the emissions of all the other 98.4 percent.
Other Examples of Placebo Legislation
The current government in Ottawa is by no means the only one presenting placebo legislation; neither is it limited to climate change. Placebo legislation has been increasing in frequency since approximately the beginning of this century, both in Canada and elsewhere. Here are just three examples, each of which I have examined in earlier posts.
BC’s “Enshrinement” of UNDRIP into BC Law
In 2019 the BC government announced, to unanimous applause in the BC Legislature, that it was the first Canadian province to enshrine the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into law. But BC’s new law didn’t actually do that, for reasons I have explained at the link below. This law makes people feel good but it doesn’t do good – at least not yet. Read the full post here: UNDRIP
Bill C-69, the Canadian Impact Assessment Act (SC 2019, c 28, s 1) (hereafter, the IAA)
In 2012 the Harper government transferred the power to make decisions about pipelines and similar projects from the National Energy Board to the federal cabinet. Then the expert agency that heard all the evidence decided nothing; it just prepared a report. But those who heard nothing, the cabinet, decided everything. The IAA, presented as fixing the 2012 law, not only preserved this fatal flaw, it introduced others, as I have explained at the link below. I have suggested in testimony before the Canadian Senate that this legislation might well be called the “No More Pipelines Act.” Read the full post here: Impact Assessment Act.
The Paris Agreement
After the failure of previous international climate agreements the UN decided to try again with Paris. It will not succeed, for reasons I have explained above, and more fully at the link below. The UN chose to pretend to do the impossible: limiting global warming to 2°C, with no known means of achieving it. That PR objective is the real purpose of the Paris Agreement. In effect, the Paris Agreement is an international political placebo. Read the full post here: The Paris Agreement.
Climate change, — the change in the mean global temperature — is a global issue that is neither locally caused nor locally cured. Canada’s Accountability Act, and the extensive government PR blitz promoting it, wrongly asserts that legislating the target will be a useful and effective new law for making the entire world safe and livable for our children and grandchildren. Real, useful, transparent laws generally do not say, in effect, “we intend to move towards accomplishing this in under 30 years, but we have no idea how to do it or what the costs will be.” This is not so much a law as a public relations statement presented as a law.
Passing legislation about a target assures neither that Canada can attain the net-zero goal in under 29 years nor that the costs and benefits of our attempting to do so are justified.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that Canada should do nothing whatsoever about the effects of climate change. But our government should not embark on a legislated journey to an unreachable destination on an unknown route, with the entire voyage paid for with undisclosed amounts of your and my money.
Does this placebo law make you feel better? It doesn’t do it for me.
 Environment and Climate Change Canada, News release, “Government of Canada legislates climate accountability with first net-zero emissions law” (June 30, 2021), online: <www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/news/2021/06/government-of-canada-legislates-climate-accountability-with-first-net-zero-emissions-law.html>
 See e.g. Impact Assessment Act, SC 2019, c 28, s 1, which has a preamble of several clauses that merely state what the Government of Canada recognizes, which would not be of any great assistance to a court in statutory interpretation. It then goes on in the definition section, s 2, to define “Indigenous knowledge”, which is given special statutory status in that Act, as: “Indigenous knowledge means the Indigenous knowledge of the Indigenous peoples of Canada.” How will this help to determine whether the evidence to be presented by an Indigenous group’s witness at a public hearing is or is not Indigenous knowledge in the statutory sense?
 Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, SC 2021, c 22, s 4.
 See e.g. La Rose v Canada, 2020 FC 1008 (unsuccessful) and Mathur v. Ontario, 2020 ONSC 6918, brought by the environmental law firm Ecojustice, was successful against Ontario’s motion to strike out the case.
 See e.g. Vaclav Smil, “It’ll Be Harder Than We Thought to Get the Carbon Out” (June 2018) 55:6 IEEE Spectrum 72, online (pdf): <vaclavsmil.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Smil-Essay-IEEE-Spectrum-June-2018.pdf>. See also Vaclav Smil, “What we need to know about the pace of decarbonization” (2019) 3:2 Substantia (Suppl. 1) 13.
 Vaclav Smil, “What we need to know about the pace of decarbonization” (April 2020) at 2, 4, online (pdf): Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy <www.schoolofpublicpolicy.sk.ca/documents/research/policy-briefs/jsgs-policybriefs-pace-of-decarbonization_web.pdf>.
 Jeff Tollefson, “The hard truths of climate change – by the numbers”, Nature (18 September 2019), online: <www.nature.com/immersive/d41586-019-02711-4/index.html>.
 British Petroleum, “Statistical Review of World Energy, 69th Edition” (2020), online (pdf): <www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/business-sites/en/global/corporate/pdfs/energy-economics/statistical-review/bp-stats-review-2020-full-report.pdf>
 See GWPF & BBC News, “Net Zero agenda faltering: ‘Pie in the sky’” (1 April 2021), online: NetZero Watch < https://www.netzerowatch.com/net-zero-agenda-faltering-pie-in-the-sky/>.
 William Nordhaus, “Projections and Uncertainties about Climate Change in an Era of Minimal Climate Policies” (2018) 10:3 American Economic J: Economic Policy 333 at 333–34, online (pdf): <pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/pol.20170046>.
 Jeffrey Rissman & Robbie Orvis, “Carbon Capture and Storage: An Expensive Option for Reducing U.S. CO2 Emissions”, Forbes (3 May 2017), online: <www.forbes.com/sites/energyinnovation/2017/05/03/carbon-capture-and-storage-an-expensive-option-for-reducing-u-s-co2-emissions/?sh=127f85846482>.
 Senate, Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources, Issue No. 58 – Evidence (2 April 2019), online: <sencanada.ca/en/Content/SEN/Committee/421/enev/58ev-54639-e>.