It’s a brisk March day in the coastal town of Wick, Scotland. The sky is a cold, fresh blue, contrasting with higher clouds made lambent by the angled spring sun. Looking out from the shore, you can see it all: the sparkling waters of Wick harbour, the Georgian stone buildings of old Wick town. Further afield, sticking up from the horizon, where steely water meets sky, is Beatrice Offshore Windfarm, its giant propellers hypnotically spinning in the steady winds of Moray Firth.

The Beatrice wind farm is named after the defunct Beatrice oil field on which it is situated. The only remaining sign of its earlier incarnation is two rusting oil platforms that sit at the feet of towering 200-metre-tall turbines; up close, you can hear the whooooooossshhh of the giant blades, steady as a heartbeat. The gleaming turbines, eighty-four in all, aren’t pumping out oxygenated blood but renewable electricity into the United Kingdom’s national grid. One rotation of the blades churns enough power to run a home for nearly a day.

Zoom out and you’ll find evidence of a wider transformation. The Beatrice wind farm has two new siblings, the adjacent Moray Firth East, which came online last year, and its westerly neighbour, which will be operational in 2024. Just north from Wick, four undersea tidal turbines are being tested. Last summer, Scotland’s first hybrid-electric plane began running trial flights between Wick and the Orkney Islands. And SSE, the energy giant that owns part of the Beatrice wind farm, is building the world’s second-largest converter station, just north of town, to feed renewable power to the Shetland Islands. SSE also refurbished two derelict harbour buildings to use as the wind farm’s operation and maintenance base. Two-thirds of the workers in the base’s control room moved over from jobs in oil and gas. The way many locals run their homes has changed too. On a sunny day, solar panels on roofs power basic appliances. And, thanks to government incentives, some people have replaced water heaters with air-to-water heat pumps, which provide a further dent in electricity bills.

This montage playing out in a remote corner of northeastern Scotland embodies a remarkable fact: in just over three decades, the UK has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by almost half. Not only has it slashed emissions faster than any other industrialized country but it’s also charging ahead to get them down to zero by 2050. The market has become a partner in the “net zero” goal: most manufacturing and industrial sectors are changing their conduct to pollute less and be more efficient. Over the past decade alone, electricity generated from wind power jumped by 715 percent, and there are plans to quadruple offshore wind power over the next eight years. In December 2021, one of four new cars sold in the UK was electric (as opposed to one out of twenty in Canada last year), and the number of properties with solar panels surged 71 percent. The confidence with which the country is charting its path away from oil and gas is striking, especially as the Industrial Revolution, and the large-scale practice of burning fossil fuels, began in the UK some 300 years ago.

Canada has its own climate demons. By 1929, a chemist by the name of Karl Clark perfected a way to extract oil from the gummy, tarred earth of Alberta’s Athabasca basin using hot water. That breakthrough and the fact that Canada sits on the third-largest oil reserve in the world led to the energy-intensive mining of the oil sands decades later. According to the economic website Visual Capitalist, Canada’s per capita carbon emissions are the second highest in the world, higher than those in the United States, Australia, and Russia and almost three times those of the UK. Cars and trucks contribute nearly a fifth of Canada’s emissions; extraction and refinement of fossil fuels account for about another quarter.

But, unlike the UK, Canada has fumbled every climate pledge. Emissions here have risen by at least 21 percent in the three decades since 1990, during which time both Conservative and Liberal governments produced ten federal climate-action plans—the latest of which was published at the end of March—but delivered a performance that ranks last among G7 nations. Canada’s chronic failures over the past thirty years are not lost on federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development Jerry V. DeMarco, Canada’s environmental watchdog: “Lots of plans, lots of targets, but a frustrating lack of performance.” Had Canada managed to mirror the UK’s reductions, we would have kept the equivalent of over 6,500 megatonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, equal to the emissions generated by nearly 750 million car trips around the equator.

Canada has warmed by an average of 1.8 degrees since 1948—twice the global rate of warming. The effect has been hard to miss. Last June, the town of Lytton, British Columbia, reached 49.6 degrees, breaking all-time temperature records in Canada for the third straight day. That same “heat dome” killed over 500 British Columbians, making it Canada’s deadliest weather event to date, an atmospheric anomaly deemed “virtually impossible” without human-induced climate change, according to World Weather Attribution, an international consortium of climate experts. Wildfires broke out—including one that razed Lytton the day after the heat broke.

By November, the very same landscape, scorched from yet another brutal wildfire season, was pummeled by record rains that shredded the province’s highway infrastructure, leaving Vancouver cut off by road from the rest of Canada and British Columbians rationing gasoline for a month. The barrage of atmospheric rivers over those two weeks was the costliest weather disaster in the province’s history—a disaster, according to scientists from the University of Victoria and Environment and Climate Change Canada, made at least 60 percent more likely by our greenhouse gas emissions.

Both disasters are mere hints of what’s to come. After thirty years of pushing the issue down the road, Canada is faced with a hard deadline to do its share to keep the global climate habitable: cut emissions by 4 percent year on year over the next eight years and bring the rest down to net zero by 2050.

So where did Canada go so wrong and what did the UK get right? What is the difference between a nation that cuts its emissions by nearly a half and another that increases them over the same period? This is not to say that the UK is a perfect analogue for Canada. We are a weak federation of provinces, wherein jurisdiction over the environment is shared. The UK—even with devolved powers in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—is much more centralized. The ways we produce emissions differ too. The UK used to burn a lot of coal to power its energy grid, but most of Canada’s electricity is already generated from zero-carbon sources like hydropower. Since 2008, the UK has also enjoyed broad political consensus on climate action among all three of its major parties, the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats. There is no such consensus in Canada. In 2021, the same year that Boris Johnson’s Conservative government adopted the world’s most ambitious reduction targets, members of Canada’s Conservative Party voted down a motion to officially recognize that climate change is real.

Yet studying what the UK has done is instructive. Strip away all the superficialities of where the two countries differ, and what universal ingredients for success are revealed? The professionalization and coordination within government to deliver emissions reductions smarter, faster, better. To understand how the UK made this a reality, one must delve into specifics—policy incubation and implementation, bureaucratic processes, governance, accountability, metrics, and reporting. The country’s secret sauce isn’t that secret. It’s competence.

Two people sit on a beach admiring wind mills

The events that brought Wick those wind farms began in the early 2000s, when, after a sustained downward trend throughout the 1990s, the UK’s emissions flatlined. Baroness Bryony Worthington, who studied emissions data as a climate campaigner with the nonprofit Friends of the Earth, concluded there had to be a better way for government to deliver the big-picture reductions it kept promising. Instead of rolling out a myriad of tiny policies, what if it stuck to a strict emissions budget every year? That is, prescribe the annual amount of carbon the country is allowed to “spend” and force successive governments to enact policies that meet it. Politics will always favour shorter-term wins over issues that play out in the longer term, so maybe you could write a bill that forced a shift in that balance—one that made it easier for governments to make decisions for the next five, ten, fifteen years rather than the next political cycle. “Ultimately, you’re trying to create a framework in which you give civil servants the best possible chance to get the job done in the face of horrible politics,” says Worthington, currently an independent member of the House of Lords. It was worth a shot. In 2005, Friends of the Earth launched a national campaign asking parliamentarians to legislate rolling emissions reductions. The “Big Ask” campaign resonated with the public, celebrities, and politicians, leading to the Climate Change Act passing virtually unanimously, in 2008.

Today, the world is full of climate change legislation. What set this one apart? To begin with, it was the first to introduce carbon budgets into law. Typically, a government would pledge to lower emissions a certain amount by a distant future date. The UK act legislated an end goal—but also the short-term carbon budgets required to get there. The act is also notable because it’s fairly agnostic about how the government of the day decides to adhere to its legally binding emissions constraints. Instead, to ensure they happen, the act included what Worthington calls an “enforcement mechanism.” A major tool in that mechanism is the Climate Change Committee. The CCC is an independent body of experts in the areas of climate science and policy, economics, engineering, and energy production. It exists to help plug gaps between ambition and performance. Committee members not only recommend to Parliament what the carbon budgets should be but also annually report on the progress made to meet them. They look at how industries are investing in renewables, for example. They scrutinize policy introduced to help that shift, including clocking the speed between the implementation of their recommendations and material results. They also forecast how infrastructure projects—an airport expansion, for example—might impact future carbon emissions.

If efforts are falling short, the CCC prescribes course corrections. If the country blows past the total carbon it is mandated to emit, the legislation has armed citizens with the ability to take the government to court. “You need that to hold their feet to the fire,” says Worthington. “The government knows it’s got to do certain things by certain dates, and if they don’t do it, they risk getting judicially reviewed.”

Canada also has a piece of climate legislation. The Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act passed in 2021, after extensive advocacy by the climate movement. Under the act, the minister of environment and climate change sets emissions targets, delivers reduction plans, and tracks the country’s progress. But, while the act promises unprecedented levels of effort in the form of planning and reporting, no emissions targets between now and 2050 are enshrined in law, as they are with the UK’s rolling carbon budgets. They also aren’t as enforceable. When Canada misses a target, the minister explains what failed and what the government will do better going forward. “It’s kind of like what a grade three teacher might ask a bad student to do if they didn’t hand in their homework on time,” says David V. Wright, an environmental law professor at the University of Calgary. Notably absent is the explicit legal language to compel the government with the threat of a lawsuit. As a result, “it’s an open question what a court would be willing to do for something that this government or a future government fails to do under the act,” explains Wright. Last year, Elizabeth May, of the Green Party, introduced an amendment to fill this gap, but with only the NDP and Bloc Québécois in support, it failed.

The Canadian version of the CCC is called the Net-Zero Advisory Body. Its remit is quite narrow. First, unlike the CCC, it does not annually review Canada’s progress toward its climate goals. Second, it reports directly to the minister of environment and climate change, instead of making its recommendations to all of Parliament, like the CCC does. Third, rather than following the CCC’s arm’s-length model of drawing on the academic and technological community for members, the NZAB reflects stakeholder groups (the current co-chair previously worked as the CEO of Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, something one senator I spoke to likened to the tobacco industry being in the operating room of a lung cancer patient). The government does get progress reports, but they are provided at staggered periods by Environment and Climate Change Canada—the same department responsible for the emissions reductions. It’s fair to ask how employees whose salaries, careers, and promotions are tied to that department can honestly report on their own performance. “The accountability mechanism is not strong enough, that’s the bottom line,” says former federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development Julie Gelfand. “Canada could do better.”

Canada’s Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act isn’t entirely without teeth. It does require an independent review, by DeMarco’s office, of Canada’s progress toward its climate goal a minimum of once every five years, but given that the country has pledged to cut emissions by about 40 percent within the next eight years, that frequency is inadequate. “That should be going on every year,” says Dave Sawyer, principal economist at the Canadian Climate Institute, a climate-policy research institute. “It’s like a health checkup. If you go every five years, you might have something that you should have caught four years ago.”

Even if Canada did manage to create an advisory body to report annually to Parliament on emissions and policy rollout, such a group would face another problem: the lack of timely data. Canada’s national emissions data is only available almost two years after the fact. For example, as of this writing, it’s summer 2022. The most recent emissions data we have dates back to 2020. So we know what effect COVID-19 had on emissions for 2020, but we will have to wait until 2023 to find out just how aggressively they bounced back from the pandemic dip created by lockdown conditions. In the UK, the emissions data for a given calendar year is published the following spring. Granted, it’s provisional and subject to correction, but as multiple experts reminded me, at least they have something current to work with—unlike in Canada.

“We’re making decisions now to bend that arc on emissions, and so we need that real-time analysis,” says Kevin Page from the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy, a think tank at the University of Ottawa. Others were even more pointed. “What if somebody said, ‘Well, we don’t know what our GDP is right now, but we can tell you what it was two years ago.’ That makes no sense,” says Kimberley Leach, principal in the Office of the Auditor General of Canada. “Especially if you’re trying to prioritize and you’re trying to be nimble and make changes as you go forward.”

Steven Guilbeault, environment and climate change minister, admits outdated emissions data is less than ideal but isn’t able to say when the government would be able to publish it at a faster pace. The Canadian Climate Institute hopes to plug this gap with an online dashboard able to track emissions indicators as they appear. But this still means that the odds of Canada’s latest reduction plan failing due to poor implementation are considerable, says Sawyer, especially given that almost half of the reductions required to reach that 2030 target are from policies that have yet to be announced or developed. If you think eight years is plenty of time to deliver outstanding policies, consider that it’s taken six years to finalize a national policy on clean-fuel standards.

“I told the officials, ‘Listen, we don’t have the luxury of taking five years to develop new regulations. We have to be able to develop new regulations within the span of about a year,’” says Guilbeault. To be sure, prime minister Justin Trudeau’s government is doing more than its predecessors to take on the climate crisis. It is making record financial investments in climate action, committing over $100 billion in funding to the file, and is rolling out well over fifty federal policies to reduce emissions. Caroline Brouillette, the national policy director of Climate Action Network Canada, a national coalition of over 100 climate groups, says the new pace is notable but “still wildly too slow.”

Back in the UK, up-to-date data helped the CCC recognize early on that the existing electricity market couldn’t deliver the emissions reductions needed to meet the country’s 2050 target. Despite the political support, investors required further certainty to stake big money on renewables. Climate policies could still come and go, which made investors nervous, especially when those investments involved decades-long commitments. So the CCC began to explore ways to reduce the risk. What it proposed was contracts for difference. Awarded by auction, a CfD is a fifteen-year-long agreement between the government and a renewable-energy provider. The government guarantees it will cover the difference between a fixed, agreed price for renewable electricity and its market price, thus making it harder for providers to lose money (the Moray East Offshore Windfarm, for example, was rolled out after it won the bid in the 2017 CfD auction).

It was around this time that Sam Fankhauser, who sat on the CCC for its first eight years and now teaches climate policy at Oxford University, recalls witnessing the actualization of what had, until then, existed only as computer models—he began to see offshore wind costs come down and electric vehicles on the roads. “All of a sudden, you could see real action, real numbers.”

This activity may seem small fry when you consider that the UK is responsible for only 1.1 percent of current global greenhouse gas emissions, but the impact of its policies has been outsized. In 2008, the Climate Change Act was the first of its kind in the world. Fourteen years later, two-thirds of OECD countries already have a similar climate law in place or are considering one. The CCC has also proven to be a key innovation. While environment advisory bodies associated with government have long existed, the CCC was the world’s first to be dedicated solely to climate. Since then, other countries have followed suit (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, France), with more on the way (Portugal, Spain). Even the CfD innovation is catching on, as Germany is now using auctions to accelerate investment in decarbonization. The evidence is compelling. An independent 2018 review of the Climate Change Act by the London School of Economics’s Grantham Institute credits it for not only delivering the fastest decarbonization the world has seen but also successfully decoupling greenhouse gas emissions from GDP. Between 1985 and 2016, the UK’s GDP per head grew by 70.7 percent, while CO2 emissions fell by 34.2 percent—proof a modern economy can thrive while reducing its reliance on fossil fuels.

“The UK is never going to solve climate change on its own, but if it can show that, hey, here’s a governance model that can be learned from, I think that really can make more than a 1 percent difference to tackling global climate change,” says David Joffe, head of carbon budgets at the CCC. His challenge now is that the good news, especially relating to the UK’s story of falling emissions, seems too good to be true. “The story struggles because people find it difficult to believe that it could have worked out so well,” he says.

Since the Climate Change Act came into effect, fourteen years ago, the UK has yet to miss a carbon budget. Cross-party support has lasted too. Jared J. Finnegan, a political economist at University College London, co-authored a study on the impact of the act ten years into its creation. He and his colleagues interviewed thirty-three players across politics, government, private sector, and NGOs. No matter their affiliation or ideology, the respondents all admitted to using the CCC’s numbers, so strong was the consensus that the institution’s evidence was credible and objective. “When we looked at political debates in Parliament, we found those have become more fact-based and better informed over the past ten or fifteen years as a result of, we think, the CCC feeding in very good, high-quality information,” he says.

The act, the CCC it created, and the political support it appears to enjoy may be the stars of the UK’s climate governance, but all that exists thanks to something Canada lacks: a civil service able to swiftly execute climate policy. “The UK has been very oriented to getting results on this issue. It has structured things properly to get results. It has a strong civil service that delivers,” says Normand Mousseau, scientific director of the Institut de l’énergie Trottier of Polytechnique Montréal, a research and training institute focusing on energy transition. “Here, the civil service is weak in its capacity to move forward, to challenge and transform.”

When auditor general Michael Ferguson reported on the “incomprehensible failure” of the government’s Phoenix pay system in spring 2018—a payroll system that has cost over $1.4 billion in fixes and, at one point, left half of all public servants with errors in their pay—he blamed a culture that “created an obedient public service that fears mistakes and risk,” resulting in a bureaucracy that would rather do nothing over being reprimanded for doing something that doesn’t work out. Now overlay on top of this public-service culture a mission as urgent and comprehensive as transitioning an entire nation off fossil fuels within twenty-eight years, says Mousseau, and ask where that leaves government climate action. “We don’t have this capacity or culture of delivering results in Canada,” he says. “We deliver processes.”

The symptoms of this malaise are painful to behold. In late 2020, the Canadian government launched the Emissions Reduction Fund’s onshore program, a $675 million initiative in which oil-and-gas companies struggling with low pandemic prices would get financial support to cut greenhouse emissions. DeMarco and his team delved into the program and found—in an audit released last fall—that the department responsible for the program tracked only the emissions reductions resulting from the fund but not any emissions increases from boosted production that resulted from the financial aid. The result was that, in some instances, the program resulted in increased emissions from recipients—this coming from a fund that had “emissions reduction” in its name. “What was lacking was a full cost accounting of the actual program. It would be akin to a company presenting financial statements and telling you about their revenues and their assets for the year but not telling you about their expenditures and their liabilities,” says DeMarco. “If that’s a characteristic of other programs, then that might help explain why Canada has targets and doesn’t meet them.”

Just this spring, DeMarco published an audit on the government’s hydrogen strategy. Hydrogen fuel is an important piece of the puzzle because it shows great promise in helping to replace fossil fuels, provided it’s produced from renewable energy. Two federal departments, Environment and Climate Change Canada and Natural Resources Canada, were charged with assessing the emissions reductions that hydrogen would deliver come 2030. The audit found that not only were their projections unrealistic but, between them, they projected a threefold difference in cuts (fifteen megatonnes at ECCC versus up to forty-five megatonnes at NRCan). Without accurate estimates of the degree to which hydrogen will bring down emissions, it is impossible to plan any pathway to Canada’s reduction target that depends on the fuel. “For climate policy to be coherent, a big issue will be coordination among these different institutions, to make them functional and effective,” says Brouillette.

And therein lies Canada’s real problem: a failure of imagination in how the administrative branches of government can be better coordinated to deliver emissions reductions at good value to the taxpayer. “One thing that is clear from the UK experience is that the political culture around how accountability is implemented, not only at the parliamentary level but also the bureaucratic level, is important,” says Brouillette. And, without a significant overhaul in how government is structured, many don’t see a path to success in meeting emissions targets. “The depth of the challenge we’re facing is such that we cannot tweak approaches of the past. You have to redesign them, reconceive them, and it cannot be done with the current structure,” says Mousseau. “The climate plan has to be so strong and so convincing that it creates a future in which people can project themselves and act.”

Lacking, in other words, is a degree of fearless leadership, especially from civil servants. “We need them to marshal all of their resources and to think it through,” says Dan Woynillowicz, who leads Polaris Strategy, a climate-policy consultancy in Victoria. “Are we set up effectively, do we have the right staff, do we have the right information, do we have the right processes to achieve these things that are hard?”

In the UK’s case, the country’s civil service has, writ large, begun to bake the net-zero mission into its entire makeup. “The civil-service response to a legislative requirement is setting up a series of systems which make sure words are converted to action,” says David Reed, the UK’s deputy high commissioner to Canada. The foreign office, for example, is well on its way to replacing its entire fleet with electric cars by 2030. In the coming years, the high commission’s new building on Sussex Drive will be the foreign office’s greenest in the world. “When you’re asking for cash for these sorts of projects, you are much more likely to get the money if you can show that it’s not going to generate high carbon emissions,” says Reed. Government departments in the UK had a better chance of securing funds in last fall’s spending review, for example, if the outcomes of that spending were aligned with the nation’s goal of net zero.

This is not to say the UK is guaranteed success in reaching its 2050 target. It faces many challenges, especially as the country enters the period of its fourth, and most stringent, carbon budget next year. But it is clear that the UK is better set up to succeed than Canada. “It doesn’t mean we are out of the woods,” says Fankhauser. “We still have to see it through, but we are somewhere else in the debate.”

There is a symmetry, too, to the fact that Boris Johnson, in 2020, framed the climate plan as a road map for a “green industrial revolution.” The Industrial Revolution modernized the world. It made it richer but also had the brutal side effect of weaponizing the weather against us as greenhouse gases accumulated in the atmosphere and warmed the planet. In the early 2000s, when the UK was just beginning discussions around strengthening its climate governance, the economic argument for why it shouldn’t legislate climate action was never as powerful as the moral one for why it should. Which is to say, the UK took ownership of global warming. They accepted their part in starting it and their duty to fix it. Their political decision making had a moral backbone. It was both atonement and innovation.

And, as the UK’s emissions continue to drop, step by step, megatonne by megatonne, Canada’s failure to implement climate policy effectively and swiftly has become harder to ignore. “This is viewed as a race,” said Rosa Galvez, an independent senator representing Quebec and a leading expert on the effects of pollution on human health. “What the Canadian Net-Zero Emission Accountability Act did was just put us at the departure line,” she says, referring to the global transition away from fossil fuels. “We are not running yet. We have to run.” 

Anne Shibata Casselman
Anne Casselman writes for Scientific American and
Min Gyo Chung
Min Gyo Chung ( counts Corporate Knights, Cottage Life, and The Sunday Times Magazine among his clients.