Policymakers, business leaders and communities in Canada and elsewhere need to become more ambitious if they want to transform the economy and embrace a more livable future.
Adopting strategic framework legislation can be a way to achieve these goals. The United Kingdom was the first country in the world to adopt climate-change legislation. Its Climate Change Act (CCA) dates back to 2008 and subsequently inspired key features of the Paris Agreement.
In large part because of the CCA, the British government has made considerable progress, with carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions now at just half of their peak level from 1970.
The U.K. experience offers important lessons for Canada, where continued fragmentation of climate governance has been a significant barrier to change. More work must be done here to identify how innovative policies, public procurement and demand-side measures can shape new markets and create green jobs, while also supporting communities in transition.
The British model
In a recent study, we analyzed the role of the act in shaping the British government’s successful energy transition. Three key institutional innovations are embedded in the U.K. legislation — legally binding carbon budgets, a non-partisan scientific expert panel (the Climate Change Committee, or CCC) and a mandatory monitoring and reporting process.
Together, these have helped to build a broad social consensus about the importance of decarbonization and to promote the creation of strong co-ordination mechanisms within government.
These, and the British government’s track record, have also shown that effective actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions need not be economically damaging. In fact, climate action in the U.K. is being linked to a process of wider economic transformation with vibrant new industries contributing to decarbonization.
Canada, by contrast, has failed to meet every single emissions target it has ever set. It’s been ranked as “highly insufficient” by the Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific project since 2009. Canada is also the only G7 country where emissions have increased since 2010 and it has one of the highest per-capita rates of emissions in the world, although thankfully that trend is beginning to head downwards.
Canada’s economy remains far too tied to fossil fuels, an energy source of the past, with the political power of oil and gas lobbying holding the country back. Overcoming a reliance on oil and gas and “carbon lock-in” will be difficult, particularly given historical disputes with some provinces.
Although Canada is making progress with recent policy developments, such as the proposed clean electricity regulations, it is still warming three times faster than the rest of the world, a worrisome trend contributing to the wildfires.
In June 2021, Canada passed its own form of climate change legislation, the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act. Modeled after the U.K. Climate Change Act, Canada’s legislation introduces a legal requirement for the country to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, with mandatory target-setting and reporting processes.
It also introduces a requirement for an emissions reduction plan for 2030 and mandates “milestone years” in 2035, 2040 and 2045 — for which emissions reduction targets must be set at least 10 years in advance.
However, Canada’s law does not enshrine sufficient interim targets and the first milestone year is delayed until 2030, several years after the next federal election (and a possible change in government). Moreover, these targets are set relative to only a 2005 baseline, instead of the U.K.’s, which are more stringent (relative to 1990).
Most importantly, Canada’s law does not give sufficient independence or resources to the Net- Zero Advisory Body (NZAB), the expert panel that advises the government on climate policy.
Unlike the U.K. Climate Change Committee, the composition and terms of reference of the NZAB are established by the minister of environment and climate change. It is required to draw “logistical, administrative, and policy support” from within government departments instead of housing its own secretariat.
Some critics worry that this arrangement could impede accountability by weakening the NZAB’s ability to perform independent analyses and criticize policy development — a function that has been a key factor in the U.K.’s success.
Another key lesson Canada can learn from the U.K. is the importance of fostering interdepartmental co-ordination mechanisms.
Since 2008, climate change in the U.K. has been elevated from being a niche concern of a single government agency to the focus of a broadly cohesive, whole-of-government strategy, which has created a culture of accelerating ambition.
In addition to two central cabinet-level committees, including a climate action strategy committee chaired by the prime minister, the U.K. has a climate change national strategy implementation group and a net-zero steering board that liaise with, and collaborate with, department-level working groups at each ministry.
This complex structure helps create responsibility for climate action, while ensuring the adoption of detailed sectoral strategies to complement national targets.
The British government has also invested significant funds in improving the co-ordination function, with its Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Department assigning 40 staff to oversee co-operation between departments.
This cross-department approach has meant that climate action has stopped being siloed and is instead viewed as a catalyst for economic transformation.
Since passage of the act, the U.K. has moved to unite energy and climate policymaking with broader economic and industrial strategy, moving beyond the false dichotomy of “economy versus environment” that has hampered other jurisdictions, including Canada.
Green industrial strategy
With its 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution and its net-zero strategy, the U.K. aims to rapidly scale up climate solutions, phasing out diesel and gas vehicles, accelerating the adoption of heat pumps and fully decarbonizing by 2035.
Canada’s approach to green industrial policy is relatively scattershot by comparison.
Recent announcements have committed more than $70 billion to support clean industries, but many investments represent little more than a handout to legacy industries, including massive tax credits for carbon capture, utilization and storage that benefit the fossil fuel sector.
New research from Nature Climate Change, a monthly scientific journal, suggests Canada could face up to $100 billion in stranded assets as early as 2036, without a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. Given the scale of the change that is required, Canada must increase its annual climate spending to two per cent of GDP in a way that will help reduce its share of global carbon emissions.
While Canada has recently implemented several promising climate policies, institutional innovations offered in the U.K. Climate Change Act could serve as important lessons to build stronger governance for climate success in Canada.
Policymakers could consider implementing interim targets prior to 2030, providing more independence to the NZAB, and enhancing cross-government co-ordination to build climate policy into a whole-of-government strategy.