Parliamentary Placebos: Laws Intended to Make You Feel Good (that don’t actually do good)

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.[1]  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[2], 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.”[3]

The stated purpose cannot be the real purpose. So what is the real Purpose?

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