Wanted: Government ownership over the common good to achieve climate justice

To keep temperature increases below 1.5°C, even business leaders agree they need stronger climate regulations

In many ways, this is a hopeful time in Canadian climate politics: the Conservative and Liberal parties have developed comprehensive climate plans, and this spring the Liberals announced $17.6 billion in new spending on climate-friendly measures. For this hope to lead to substantive change, the Canadian government – and future governments – must be willing to make the courageous choices that come with accepting their responsibility to protect the common good.

In the context of climate change, this means taking ownership for limiting temperature increases to 1.5°C. This act would require Ottawa to set bolder national targets for greenhouse gas reductions – while developing enforcement mechanisms and milestone targets prior to 2030. Canadian governments must also stop propping up fossil fuel industries.

Businesses clearly have a role to play in lowering global emissions, but even business leaders agree they need stronger climate regulations to meaningfully lower emissions. The We Mean Business Coalition, which includes more than 700 firms around the world, acknowledges that “the decisions governments make now will lock in the strategic direction of entire economies for years to come.” They’re calling on governments “to put the economy on a positive course to a resilient, zero-carbon future.” These leaders know that their businesses will thrive if governments design policies that hold all corporate actors accountable for the full scope of their impacts.

Households, too, could be a more effective part of the solution – if there were a national entity coordinating their efforts. Businesses and households alike need governments to take ownership of Canada’s net-zero vision.

Currently, that sense of ownership is borne mainly by non-governmental actors and organizations. Environmental champions and resource-constrained non-profit organizations have led change efforts because the federal and provincial governments have failed to invest in the required systems, policies, programs and interventions. Even the new efforts announced in the recent federal budget are expected to, at best, reduce Canada’s emissions by 36% from 2005 levels by 2030. In contrast, the U.K. recently passed legislation requiring emissions reductions of 78% from 1990 levels by 2035. The Liberals’ $17.6 billion in new climate action is equivalent to just 0.25% of Canada’s GDP. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, “we should be spending more like 1% to 2% of GDP per year to aggressively decarbonize.”

Scientists, business and civic leaders, Indigenous Elders and other Canadians have identified the solutions we need to tackle climate change. We have technology that enables us to embrace electric vehicles and wind and solar power, along with emerging technologies to sequester carbon. We have market-based instruments that can reduce the environmental impacts of production. Many of these solutions are being implemented with great success. But we need government action to transform these successes into systemic change.

As an example of today’s responsibility gaps, consider sustainable procurement – the purchasing of goods and services that takes into consideration social, environmental and economic impacts. Generating more than 13% of Canada’s GDP, public sector procurement has the potential to drive impact at scale. The federal government “made numerous commitments to green its procurement dating back to 1992.” Yet a recent study found sustainability has only narrowly and superficially been integrated into public sector procurement. A 2005 Auditor General’s report revealed many challenges, ranging from a lack of central direction to limited use of performance indicators to measure progress. Many of these challenges persist 16 years later, illustrating a lack of ownership from our government.

By acknowledging that we cannot rely solely on pollution pricing to tackle climate change, Canada’s federal political parties have all signalled their readiness to take ownership over climate mitigation and adaptation.

But taking responsibility means governments must establish a comprehensive strategy for change that includes specific and measurable goals. They must integrate those goals into objectives and leaders’ performance metrics. Of critical importance, they need to allocate resources commensurate with the scale of the challenge they’re taking on. And along the way, they must establish mechanisms for transparency and accountability.

So what is holding governments back? First, let’s recognize that we are talking about complex change, which is rarely easy. Governments are often trying to find consensus among stakeholder groups with divergent interests, and climate change is competing with a breadth of other priorities that in the past have been seen as more urgent. Also, we are still influenced by a neoliberal ideology that sees good government as one that embraces the free market, not shapes it, as well as outdated cost-benefit calculations that value economy over environment. More generally, governments seem to be enacting climate mitigation measures on one hand while investing in greenhouse-gas-emitting systems on the other. Yes, we have $17.6 billion in new spending, but we continue to invest in pipelines and subsidies to the oil and gas industry, and we have failed to really reckon with the fact that we have an economic system that is focused on driving infinite growth on a planet with finite resources.

What do governments need to do to change? We need a deep and ingrained recognition that a healthy environment is an unassailable foundation for healthy communities and a sustainable economy. We need to accept that what is required to keep temperatures below 1.5°C is likely not popular in the short-term, but taking ownership over achieving climate justice and committing to investing in what is required is the only path to net-zero emissions.

Russell Ackoff, a pioneer of operations research, says most organizations stumble because they solve the wrong problem, rather than because they get the wrong solution to the right problem. While existing innovations, policies and programs have solved important challenges, we now need to solve the root problem of ownership and commitment.

We are hopeful that federal and provincial governments will take full responsibility for climate justice. We are hopeful they will connect our hodgepodge of climate activities into a synergistic strategy that will achieve our goals, create mechanisms of accountability, and allocate sufficient resources to keep temperature increases below 1.5°C. With a sense of ownership and commitment, they will enable sustainability to become a core part of our socioeconomic DNA.

Monica Da Ponte is principal at Shift & Build

Emily Huddart Kennedy is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at University of British Columbia.

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