New Canadian nature bill – glass half full or an empty glass?

Glass with water being poured into it on a table with greenery in background

This month, the federal government tabled Bill C-73, a Nature Accountability Act, and published a new 2030 Nature Strategy. The Strategy is meant to show how Canada plans to meet the Global Biodiversity Framework's 23 targets, which Canada, along with all parties to the Framework, committed to meeting by 2030. The proposed Act is intended to help ensure that Canada actually meets those targets.

The question is: will the Strategy and Act work?  

The short answer is: likely not without significant improvement.  

Happily, that improvement is not only doable, but doable in the near future. In this blog, I talk about why Canada needs a strong Nature Accountability Act, how the new nature bill can be amended to make it strong, and how a 2030 Nature Action Plan to accompany the new 2030 Nature Strategy could be a credible roadmap to halting and reversing nature loss.

Why a Nature Accountability Act?  

As we discussed a in February blog post, Canada’s biodiversity is in a freefall. Habitat loss and degradation, invasive alien species, overexploitation, pollution and climate change are causing extinction at alarming rates.  

In response to this crisis, in 2022 Canada played a leadership role in the negotiation of a new Global Biodiversity Framework that sets out 23 targets for halting and reversing nature loss by 2030, and four overarching goals for living in relationship with nature by 2050.

Canada has committed to meeting these targets and goals as part of its obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Those obligations include periodically tabling “national biodiversity strategies and action plans” (NBSAPs), which are supposed to explain what measures Canada will take to meet its obligations under the Convention and how it plans to implement those measures. In other words, NBSAPs encompass two things: strategies and action plans.  

So far, Canada has only produced the “strategy” part of the NBSAP, first in 1995 and then again last week. It has yet to produce a biodiversity action plan.  

Why does it matter? Because things rarely get done, and even more rarely get done well, without a plan. A credible plan.  

Back when I had more energy and burned it running marathons, I would come up with a general strategy and a plan for actualizing the strategy. The strategy would provide a vague sense of direction, something like: develop and stick to a running training plan, eat healthy, get enough sleep, cross-train. 

The plan was where the rubber hit the road – or rather, the running trails. I would come up with a daily running schedule for the months before a race, do weekly meal planning and try to make sure my schedule built in at least eight hours of sleep per night. I didn’t much like cross-training and so would avoid making a plan for it and then fail to properly cross-train. Injuries ensued.  

The same has happened with Canada’s nature ambitions. Failure to come up with credible plans for putting our strategies into action has contributed to the general decline of nature in Canada.  

Another contributing factor is the lack of concrete national targets and indicators for measuring progress towards meeting the targets. In addition to the Global Biodiversity Framework targets, Canada agreed to the five strategic goals and 20 Aichi Targets aimed at addressing challenges in implementing the CBD. Canada also has a Federal Sustainable Development Strategy that includes a number of related goals like protecting and recovering species and conserving biodiversity.  

While all of these goals and targets are laudable, the problem with a hodgepodge is that it becomes easy to cherry-pick which ones to focus on (often the easy ones) and gloss over the failure to meet others.  

A strong Nature Accountability Act

As discussed in our previous post, a biodiversity accountability law could help guard against these issues and ensure Canada meets its Global Biodiversity Framework targets. But to be effective, it would have to do the following:

  1. Enshrine our international biodiversity targets and goals in law and require the government to establish new, ambitious post-2030 targets. 
  2. Require the federal government to produce regular NBSAPs and set minimum standards for those strategies and plans. For example, the law should ensure that the NBSAPs detail the federal measures that will be relied on to meet our targets, describe cooperative measures with Indigenous nations and the provinces, explain how the federal government will support Indigenous-led initiatives, and ensure that appropriate indicators will be used to measure progress. It should also require the NBSAPs to be clear about what gaps the provinces are expected to fill.   
  3. Require the federal government to collaborate with Indigenous nations and respect Indigenous rights and authority when making and implementing the NBSAPs, as well as requiring the government to support Indigenous-led initiatives.   
  4. Require regular, detailed public reporting on progress towards meeting our targets, including any measures needed to course-correct if we are not on track to meeting any one of our targets.  
  5. Establish an independent expert advisory body comprised of Indigenous and non-Indigenous experts and knowledge-holders to advise on targets, plans and reports.

Unfortunately, Bill C-73 fails to do most of these.  

It says that a purpose of the Nature Accountability Act is to recognize that Canada is committed to achieving the Global Biodiversity Framework targets and goals, but it doesn’t require Canada to actually set domestic nature protection and recovery targets. It requires Canada to establish NBSAPs and report on progress, but it fails to set minimum standards of those plans and reports, meaning Canada can continue to get away with inadequate planning and reporting.  

The bill requires the environment minister to consider Indigenous rights and knowledge when preparing NBSAPs and reports, but doesn’t actually require the Minister to ensure respect for Indigenous rights or support Indigenous-led initiatives like Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas. And while it does establish a new nature advisory committee, it is vague about whether or how the Minister must consider or follow the committee’s advice.  

Given these substantial gaps, Bill C-73 appears to be on the empty side. The good thing about empty glasses is that they can be filled.  

While Bill C-73 is light on detail, it does have a basic structure that could allow for the necessary level of prescription. Given the possibility of an election before October 2025 (the fixed date of the next federal election), amendments should be made quickly – ideally before the end of this year. Which is doable, because they would not need to be numerous.  

To help ensure Canada halts and reverses nature loss and meets its international biodiversity targets, amendments to the bill should:  

  1. Enshrine the Global Biodiversity Framework targets in federal law and require the Minister to establish additional national targets.  
  2. Set legal standards for NBSAPs and progress reports that would ensure credible planning and honest reporting.  
  3. Require the Minister to respect and promote Indigenous rights and provide support for Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, Guardian programs and other Indigenous-led initiatives.
  4. Enshrine a “biodiversity shield” that would prevent federal decision-makers from issuing permits or authorizations that would undermine Canada’s ability to meet its biodiversity targets.
  5. Ensure the advice of the advisory committee is reflected in targets, plans and reports.  

A 2030 Nature Action Plan

This October, parties to the CBD are meeting in Columbia for the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP16). That meeting could be an opportunity for the Minister to announce Canada’s intention to produce a 2030 Nature Action Plan to accompany the new 2030 Nature Strategy.

If amendments to Bill C-73 align with our recommendations, they would require a re-tooling of the new Strategy to include an action plan. The timing of COP16 would align well with the expected progress of those amendments through Parliament.  

Plus, time is of the essence. While halting and reversing nature loss is a marathon, not a sprint, establishing and implementing a plan for how we do that must start now. 

Top photo: Water being poured into a glass on a table, with greenery in the background. (Credit: Rawpixel via Freerange Stock)

Anna Johnston, Staff Lawyer