Canada is failing to meet its climate targets, which are already weak to begin with. Recent reports from Environment and Climate Change Canada show that the gap between national climate targets and projected emissions in 2030 increased by 50 percent between December 2016 and December 2017. Canada has very little room for additional carbon-intensive projects. Yet it still lacks environmental laws and project review processes to ensure that energy and industrial projects are aligned with its climate targets.

The federal government is moving in the right direction by considering climate change in Bill C-69, a 412-page bill introduced in February that proposes to reform Canada’s environmental assessment laws and energy and industrial project review processes. But as scientific research is showing us just how urgent action to reduce carbon emissions has become, “consideration” of climate targets is not enough. Canada has an obligation to decarbonize its economy by mid-century. The impact assessment process, which Bill C-69 seeks to reform, can be an essential tool in the carbon reduction tool kit, but only if given the teeth it needs to help move the country toward a zero-carbon future.

Canada’s current environmental assessment law does not mention climate change at all. So it’s good that Bill C-69, its proposed successor, includes climate change as a consideration in assessing new energy and industrial projects. But, having cleared that low bar, the bill still falls short of ensuring that new projects are aligned with Canada’s climate targets.

Bill C-69 has some real improvements. It explicitly recognizes that impact assessment is a tool that contributes to Canada’s ability to meet its climate commitments. The Bill requires that impact assessments consider whether an energy or industrial project hinders or contributes to Canada’s climate commitments. And as part of the proposed reforms to the nation’s environmental assessment law, the government has committed to laying out how climate change is integrated into the project review process through a strategic assessment of climate change.

These are welcome steps forward. But in the 21st century, Canada needs environmental laws that make certain that the federal government approves only the energy and industrial projects that will contribute to a climate-safe future. While it’s good that Bill C-69 proposes that the government consider climate change in impact assessments, the proposed legislation still allows the government to approve environmentally destructive projects that put Canada’s climate targets out of reach.

The impacts of climate change are becoming more apparent and severe, and Canadians deserve better environmental assessment legislation. Here are three ways the government must ensure that Bill C-69 is climate-safe.

First, the legislation’s language needs to be tightened in several places so that project approvals are based on, and do not just consider, the projects’ ability to contribute to Canada’s climate targets. These amendments must apply to projects assessed by the new Impact Assessment Agency, as well as by review panels that include Canada’s energy regulators and offshore petroleum boards. Climate targets must include Canada’s domestic plans, such as the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change and the Mid-Century Long-Term Low Greenhouse Gas Development Strategy, and its international obligations under the Paris Agreement.

Second, the federal government must ensure that all carbon-intensive projects receive a federal impact assessment, with no exemptions. To help develop the regulations for Bill C-69, the government released a consultation paper on which projects should undergo a federal impact assessment. In addition to other shortcomings that put Canada’s water, land and air at risk, the consultation paper has two gaping holes when it comes to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: fracking and in-situ oil sands projects. On a proposed list that covers everything from airports to pipelines to refineries to nuclear plants, the government is letting off the hook two sectors of the economy whose GHG emissions are projected to increase the most.

For in-situ oil sands projects, the consultation paper proposes an exemption in jurisdictions that have a hard cap on GHG emissions, a clear reference to Alberta’s 100-megatonne limit on oil sands emissions. But a provincial cap is not an adequate reason to exempt projects from federal assessment. And the Alberta cap is a particularly good example of why granting provincial exemptions is problematic. The cap excludes emissions-intensive activities like electricity cogeneration and new upgrading; it may not be implemented before the next Alberta election; and it allows Canada’s largest and fastest-growing source of emissions to grow by nearly 40 percent — at the same time when every other economic sector is expected to cut emissions.

The federal government has a responsibility to make certain that Canada meets its climate targets, and exempting the highest and fastest-growing source of GHG emissions in the country from impact assessments is an abdication of that responsibility. Bill C-69 should be plugging these kinds of loopholes, not creating new ones.

Finally, the government’s proposed strategic assessment of climate change must provide real guidance for individual energy and industrial projects. As announced, the strategic assessment is intended to determine which new projects make sense for Canada in a world moving away from fossil fuels. It will find more effective ways to integrate climate considerations into the impact assessment process at the federal level.

While the government’s commitment to undertake this strategic assessment is welcome, as it stands now, the outcome will simply be a report to the minister of environment and climate change. There are no specifics on how the public will be able to participate or how Indigenous groups will be consulted, and no further requirements for implementation. Bill C-69 must be amended to require a response from the minister that identifies how strategic assessments are to provide guidance for individual project assessments.

Canada must align its environmental laws and impact assessment process with its climate targets. It must ensure that Bill C-69 is climate-safe.

Photo: Bruce Raynor

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Patrick DeRochie
Patrick DeRochie is the senior manager for Shift Action for Pension Wealth and Planet Health, a charitable project that tracks the fossil-fuel investments and climate policies of Canadian pension funds, and mobilizes beneficiaries to engage their pension managers on the climate crisis.

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