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How Low Can We Go? Federal Government Introduces Legislation to Reach Net-Zero Emissions by 2050

In 2019, the federal government announced its intent to move forward with a target of net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. With the introduction of Bill C-12 (An Act respecting transparency and accountability in Canada’s efforts to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050) on November 19, 2020, Canada joins over 120 countries in committing to net-zero emissions by 2050, including the UK, Germany, France, and Japan.

Once passed, Bill C-12 will legally bind the federal government to a process to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. In addition, the legislation will:

  • set rolling five-year emissions-reduction targets (starting in 2030), and require plans to reach each target and report on progress;
  • enshrine greater accountability and public transparency into Canada’s plan for meeting net-zero emissions by 2050 by providing for independent third-party review by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development;
  • require the federal government to publish an annual report describing how departments and federal Crown corporations are considering the financial risks and opportunities of climate change in their decision-making;
  • establish the Net-Zero Advisory Body to provide independent advice to the federal government on the best pathway to reach its targets.

These provisions are discussed in further detail below.

A Closer Look

5-year Targets and Emission Reduction Plans

Bill C-12 will establish a legally binding process to set five-year national emissions-reduction targets for 2030, 2035, 2040, and 2045. Each target will be based on the best available scientific information and reflect Canada’s global climate change commitments. Under the Paris Agreement, Canada has committed to reducing its GHG emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. The 2005 level is estimated at 730 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e), which translates into a 2030 target of approximately 511 Mt CO2e. In 2018, Canada's total GHG emissions were 729 Mt CO2e. Canada’s net-zero-by-2050 target is expected to impact Canada's future emissions projections (including for 2030), as new emission reduction initiatives are developed and implemented.

Under the proposed Act, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada is required to establish an emissions reduction plan for achieving each 5-year target. Each emissions reduction plan must contain the following information: (i) GHG emissions target for the year to which the plan relates; (ii) a description of the key emissions reduction measures the Government of Canada intends to take to achieve its GHG emissions target; (iii) a description of any relevant sectoral strategies; and (iv) a description of emissions reduction strategies for federal government operations. Emission reduction plans must also explain how the measures and strategies outlined in the plan will contribute to Canada achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.


The key accountability mechanism in Bill C-12 comes in the form of a reporting requirement. In particular, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change must report to Parliament with respect to each national emissions target. These reports will include the following:

  • emission reduction plans to achieve the targets;
  • interim progress reports to update on the ongoing implementation and effectiveness of reduction plans; and
  • final assessment reports to indicate whether a target has been met and assess the effectiveness of the associated plan.

In the absence of an enforcement mechanism for missed targets, Bill C-12 will require the federal government to assess the reasons for its failure to meet a target. In particular, the Minister must table a report outlining the reasons why Canada failed to meet the target and describing the actions the federal government will take or is taking to address the failure to achieve the target. Beyond tabling reports in Parliament, Bill C-12 calls on the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development to examine and report on the federal government’s implementation of climate change mitigation measures at least once every five years. This measure seeks to ensure rigorous oversight of the federal government’s milestone plans and progress toward implementation.

Climate Considerations in Federal Government Decision-Making

To better understand the risks and opportunities posed by climate change, a growing number of companies and countries are starting to incorporate climate considerations into their planning. The Act reflects this trend towards better informed decision-making. Bill C-12 will require the Minister of Finance, in cooperation with the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, to publish an annual report outlining key measures that federal departments and Crown corporations have taken to manage the financial risks and opportunities related to climate change. This means that every department and all federal Crown corporations will include climate risks and opportunities in their planning, with a view to enhancing decision-making processes.

Independent Net-Zero Advisory Body

In recognition of the importance of stakeholder input, an independent Net-Zero Advisory Body will be established to provide the federal government with expert advice on measures to grow the economy while achieving net-zero emissions. The Advisory Body will provide advice on measures to catalyze long-term, low-carbon economic growth across the Canadian economy, including advice on policy measures to incentivize economically and environmentally beneficial investments in step-change infrastructure and clean technology. The types of factors that the Advisory Body will be expected to consider, include:

  • economic costs and opportunities (e.g. impacts on job creation and competitiveness, trade and export opportunities, regional economic impacts, opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises, and domestic and international supply chain considerations);
  • environmental benefits (e.g. GHG reduction potential, improved resilience and adaptation to climate change, decreases to other pollutants, and nature conservation and other co-benefits);
  • contributions to inclusivity and well-being (e.g. opportunities to further reconciliation with Indigenous peoples; analysis of the impacts on marginalized or vulnerable people; degree of public engagement, awareness, and support for the proposed actions; and improvements to Canada’s education and skills development agenda); and
  • technological readiness and requirements (e.g. available and emerging clean technologies, role of net-negative technologies, and technology needs and investments required).

Environment and Climate Change Canada also expects the Advisory Body to undertake robust engagement activities, such as:

  • pursuing opportunities to discuss sectoral and regional dimensions of the pathways to net zero with provinces and territories, municipalities, and other stakeholders;
  • soliciting input from Indigenous governments, organizations, groups, communities, and individuals;
  • organizing targeted engagement activities such as meetings and roundtable discussions with civil society groups, industry associations and member companies, youth, and academic, scientific, and technical experts; and
  • leveraging innovative techniques for broad public engagement and informed, meaningful dialogue (e.g. citizen assemblies) based on the advice of experts.

While the Advisory Body’s advice will focus on actions that are within the federal jurisdiction, they may also address actions that can be implemented by stakeholders such as individuals, communities, businesses, and other levels of government.

At the municipal and provincial level, a number of jurisdictions have already made net-zero-by-2050 commitments. These jurisdictions include Vancouver, Guelph, Hamilton, Toronto, Halifax, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Prince Edward Island has pledged to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, while the new majority NDP government in BC announced in October 2020 that it has plans to introduce net-zero-by-2050 legislation. Over the coming months and in advance of the next global climate conference (COP 26) to be held in November 2021, we can expect pressure to ramp up on all levels of government to produce meaningful action plans to reach their net-zero-by-2050 commitments. 

Bill C-12 greenhouse gas (GHG) Federal Government emissions emission reductions climate considerations COP 26


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