The following post has been prepared jointly with Professor Bob Gibson at the University of Waterloo, and Karine Péloffy at the Centre Québécois du Droit de L’environnement. The work is a small part of a broader research collaboration on the integration of climate change into EA funded by the Metcalf Foundation and SSHRC.
For decades now, successive the Canadian federal governments have been making international and domestic commitments to climate change mitigation. So far, the record of achievement has been poor. Among the signs of inattention to effective action is that no Canadian government has made a serious attempt to define the implications of our broad commitments for planning and decision making about particular undertakings. As a result, we have been assessing and approving major projects without informed evaluation of whether or not their attributable lifetime greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would be in line with meeting our commitments.
Thankfully, that may be about to change. In its June 2017 discussion paper on environmental assessment process reform, the current federal government proposed an approach to cumulative effects issues that includes “[c]onducting strategic assessments that explain the application of environmental frameworks to activities subject to federal oversight and regulation, starting with one for climate change.” Undertaking such strategic assessments has been a prime recommendation of many participants in the federal assessment processes reform exercise.
Just how the government will proceed with the proposed strategic assessment has not yet been clarified and some initial ideas raise concern that the scope of the contemplated strategic endeavour could be unduly limited. For example, the assessment processes discussion paper suggested that
… the contribution of a project to climate change is best assessed in the context of the Pan-Canadian Framework for Clean Growth and Climate Change and the commitment to meet our 2030 target; a strategic assessment of the Pan-Canadian Framework would provide guidance on how to determine how life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with individual projects are assessed.
Although the Framework could serve as one starting point for a strategic assessment on climate commitment guidance for future project assessments, it cannot provide the full picture; only a strategic assessment that canvasses the full suite of commitments and mechanisms under the Paris Agreement and the UNFCCC – including the Paris Agreement’s global long term decarbonization goal – could provide the necessary long term guidance to deliberations on projects and other particular undertakings. A primary reason for this is that while the Pan-Canadian Framework is a critical step towards meeting Canada’s commitments, many projects assessed under the new framework will operate well into the future, well beyond the horizon of the current Framework.
Both the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change and the Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Gas Development Strategy released in December 2016 aim to bring about a future for Canada that is radically different from what business-as-usual paths will impose, and much more consistent with the concept of sustainability. The Framework is an historic step in the fight against climate change in this country, the first concrete agreement among federal and provincial jurisdiction to start the transition to GHG neutrality. However, by itself, the Pan-Canadian Framework will not allow Canada to reach its current Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) commitments or the deeper decarbonization that must occur by mid-century. The Mid-Century Strategy adopts a longer term approach to GHG mitigation in Canada, but it is not policy prescriptive. Moreover, neither of these current efforts is designed to ensure Canada does its fair share towards the collective goals of the Paris Agreement. Governments must therefore continue to elaborate new policies to meet our commitments.
The policy developed and assessed through the strategic assessment should guide implementation of the Framework and the Mid-Century Strategy in the context of preparing Canada to fulfil its broader commitments under the Paris Agreement. The strategic assessment should focus on implications of these commitments for project-level assessments so as to provide policy clarity for the conception, planning, evaluation and approval of individual undertakings. It would not revisit the Framework or the Strategy. Rather, it would seek to ensure their implications for new projects are elaborated in a manner that allows Canada to meet its commitments to do its fair share in keeping overall global warming to well below 2ºC, with efforts to limit warming to 1.5ºC. That would entail ensuring that project decisions maintain appropriate and realistic pathways to global decarbonization by the second part of this century. This will be especially important for major projects with lifetimes and structural effects that extend beyond 2030.
The core notion of sustainability is its concern for future generations. Nowhere is this more central and ovbious than in considering the long-term importance of meeting climate change commitments in the context of other requirements for progress towards sustainability. The agenda for the strategic assessment should therefore include consideration of how compliance with climate change commitments is to be treated in discussions of possible trade-offs.
In our view, the climate change strategic assessment should not wait for the implementation of the new federal assessment law. It should be initiated and conducted on ad hoc basis now while the law reform effort continues and in order to feed into the law reform process and future project assessments. At the same time, law reform efforts should prepare for implementation of the results, for example through climate-appropriate components in the statute, including provisions for regulations that would facilitate implementation of the results of the strategic assessment.
The broad purposes of the climate strategic assessment should include the following:
- To ensure the implications of each proposed project for meeting Canada’s climate commitments are understood before project decisions are made.
- To deliver guidance for project assessments that recognizes the current Nationally Determined Contribution as the floor rather than the ceiling of Canadian efforts on climate, and maintains Canada’s ability to increase ambition for mitigation achievements by 2030 and 2050 as per the Paris Agreement.
- To set a carbon neutrality goal and deadline for Canada consistent with our Paris Agreement commitments for purposes of guiding project assessments and decision making.
- To ensure that the guidance addresses implications for staying within carbon budgets that represent Canada’s (or a region’s or sector’s) fair contribution to meeting the Paris commitments, and recognizes the opportunity costs associated with approving projects that will use up some of the remaining carbon budget.
- To ensure that each assessed project’s net attributable effects on GHG emissions and Canada’s GHG mitigation commitments are properly considered in the context of a robust and transparent assessment of the project’s contribution to sustainability.
- To provide guidance for cumulative effects assessments in individual project cases and in regional and strategic undertakings that can evaluate overall implications for meeting the Paris Agreement commitments, including 2030 and 2050 targets as well as national, regional, and/or sectoral carbon budgets.
- To produce recommendations for development of suitable regulations, guidance for project level assessments, and practice in the planning and evaluation of new undertakings at the project and strategic (policies, plans and programs) level.
Those conducting the strategic assessment need to have adequate time and resources to ensure a credible and rigorous process and, while there is urgency in getting this process underway, they should be given the time necessary to conduct their work properly. We envision this exercise not as a pan-Canadian tour of hearing sessions but as a process that welcomes input and generates discussions amongst varied experts and interests. Participants could be convened in part via video-conferences, in combination with opportunities to make written submissions.
This strategic assessment will be only a beginning. Strategic processes for developing policy clarification and guidance for project assessments and other initiatives should be iterative, with monitoring of results, regular reviews and continuous updating. They will have to combine reasonable clarity and predictability of expectations with capacity to be flexible and adaptive to incorporate emerging knowledge, adjust to increasing ambitions under the Paris Agreement, respond to learning from experience, and respect needs for dynamic thresholds that evolve over time.
The strategic assessment offers an opportunity for a broader engagement of key sectors and interests to ensure that the Framework, and the Paris Agreement are implemented knowledgeably, consistently, credibly and effectively through the federal assessment process.
 Multi-Interest Advisory Committee (MIAC), Advice to the Expert Panel Reviewing Environmental Assessment Processes (9 December 2016), posted at http://eareview-examenee.ca/what-weve-heard/multi-interest-advisory-committee/; Expert Panel for the Review of Federal Environmental Assessment Processes, Building Common Ground: A New Vision for Impact Assessment in Canada (Canada: MECC, 2017); Meinhard Doelle and John Sinclair, EA Expert Panel Report: Reflections on Canada’s Proposed Next Generation Assessment Process; and Anna Johnston, Jamie Kneen et al., Analysis of Building Common Ground: A New Vision for Impact Assessment in Canada – The Final Report of the Expert Panel for the Review of Environmental Assessment Processes (May 2017), submitted by the Environmental Planning and Assessment Caucus of the Canadian Environmental Network.
 Government of Canada, “Environmental and Regulatory Reviews Discussion Paper” (June 2017), p.9, online: https://www.canada.ca/en/services/environment/conservation/assessments/environmental-reviews/share-your-views/proposed-approach/discussion-paper.html.
 This was recommended by the federal government’s Expert Panel for the Review of Federal Environmental Assessment Processes, Building Common Ground: A New Vision for Impact Assessment in Canada (Canada: MECC, 2017), pp.83ff.
 Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canada’s Mid-Century Long-Term Low-Greenhouse Gas Development Strategy, 2016.
 Paris Agreement, Article 2, s.1(a), and Article 4, s.1.
 See, for example the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, at page 4, on “meeting or exceeding” the set target.
 The guidance should include attention to means of judging what GHG offsets may be potentially appropriate in conditions of approval.
Professor, Schulich School of Law