Political and Constitutional Divisions Do Not Excuse Failure to Comply with Human Rights Obligations Related to Climate Change

In advance of Saskatchewan Court of Appeal hearings on February 13 and 14, in a case brought by the provincial government of Saskatchewan challenging the constitutionality of the federal government’s carbon pricing system, Amnesty International underscores that regardless of constitutional disagreements, federal, provincial and territorial governments equally share binding international human rights obligations to take urgent and effective measures to address climate change. Constitutional arrangements are no excuse for inadequate or delayed action.
Climate change negatively impacts a range of human rights – civil, cultural, economic, political and social – and if not addressed urgently these impacts, which are already affecting millions of people across the planet including in Canada, will result in even more devastating harm on a massive scale. A recent report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed that not exceeding a global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is an absolute imperative to avoid the worst consequences for human rights in the coming years. The UN Panel further warns that the world has only 12 years to halve carbon emissions in order to reach that 1.5°C target. The message is therefore clear: governments need to take effective and concrete action with no further delays.
As part of its climate change strategy the Canadian government has required all provinces and territories to implement a price on carbon by 2019. Saskatchewan’s plan only partially meets the required federal standard and therefore the province will be subject to a carbon pricing system imposed by the federal government. The government of Saskatchewan will be before the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal this week in a case which will determine whether the federally-imposed carbon tax is constitutional. The governments of Ontario and New Brunswick are intervening in support of Saskatchewan’s position that it is not constitutional. The government of British Columbia is supporting the federal government’s assertion that it is.
Given its impact on human rights, governments have binding legal obligations – in addition to meeting their commitments under the Paris Agreement – to address climate change, including by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They must do so as quickly and effectively as possible, while also ensuring that their efforts fully respect and protect human rights. Carbon pricing, including carbon taxes, is among the strategies that can help to meet those obligations.
Careful policy design is necessary to ensure that vulnerable populations who are already struggling to make ends meet are not disproportionately affected by such policies. For example, to prevent regressive effects on low-income households, a portion of carbon pricing revenues can be passed on to low-income families in the form of a rebate. The Canadian government claims that almost all families in Saskatchewan will end up with more money in their pockets, and low-income families will benefit most. That promise would need to be rigorously monitored to ensure that carbon pricing does not deepen inequality in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, where too many people are living in poverty. In addition, mechanisms must be put in place to ensure that up-front payments related to the carbon tax do not put excessive burdens on low-income households.
To meet their human rights obligations, government authorities at all levels must, as a matter of urgency, fully cooperate with each other and not unfairly block or obstruct efforts to move forward with emissions reductions. Furthermore, living up to those obligations must not in any way be unduly hampered or impeded by relying on constitutional arrangements with respect to the division of powers between different levels of government. What matters is those in power working together to reduce carbon emissions, uphold human rights and tackle climate change; and doing it immediately, effectively and cooperatively.
Additionally, to be effective in mitigating climate change, carbon pricing needs to be combined with removal of subsidies to the fossil fuel sector as a matter of priority. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Canada provides hundreds of millions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies.
While Canada’s carbon pricing plan is expected to substantially reduce the country’s carbon emissions, it will not be enough to achieve the country’s emission reduction targets, which are already considered insufficient to meet the objective of avoiding exceeding a global warming level of 1.5°C. Therefore, governments at all levels in Canada must take further initiatives to reduce carbon emissions and increase their emission reduction commitments for 2030, in line with the Paris Agreement and their human rights obligations.
If governments fail to act effectively to curb climate change, it could result in widespread violations of multiple human rights including the right to life, right to health, right to water, right to food, the right to housing and the rights of Indigenous peoples. The clock is ticking. It is not the time for political and constitutional disagreements among different levels of government in Canada. It is the time for unified action.
For further information, please contact Elizabeth Berton-Hunter, Media Relations 416-363-9933 ext 332 bberton-hunter@amnesty.ca