Reality check: Declaring a climate emergency sends a message but does little else

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna called on federal politicians to vote to declare a climate emergency ahead of the Monday night vote. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The House of Commons voted on Monday night to recognize a climate emergency in Canada and for the government to commit to meeting its emission-reduction targets under the Paris Agreement.

But while the vote made headlines across the country, that support doesn’t mean the government is compelled to do anything — and it came just hours before the government is set to announce its decision on whether to let the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion proceed despite outcry from environmental groups.

READ MORE: National climate emergency declared by House of Commons

According to the House of Commons rules, there are two kinds of motions: orders and resolutions.

The first are exactly what they sound like: orders from the House of Commons for a particular action to be carried out, often in the context of tasking a committee or other body with an activity. But resolutions are motions that are non-binding and carry no requirement of action.

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“A resolution of the House is a declaration of opinion or purpose; it does not require that any action be taken, nor is it binding,” read the procedural rules.

WATCH: National climate emergency motion passes in House of Commons

Click to play video: 'National climate emergency motion passes in House of Commons'
National climate emergency motion passes in House of Commons

Under those rules, the vote was effectively a symbolic show of support and acknowledgement of the serious challenges posed by climate change.

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It was also a political opportunity for the government to affirm its own commitment to meet its climate targets amid concerns from officials, like the Parliamentary Budget Officer, that the current price on carbon is not enough to reduce emissions to the targets Canada has vowed to meet.

READ MORE: PBO says Canada needs higher carbon prices to hit emissions targets

When asked about the non-binding nature of the motion, a press secretary for Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said in an email that by supporting the vote, “Canada has added its voice to a growing movement of governments that are declaring climate change an emergency and affirming that Canada is working to meet its international commitments.”

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McKenna also appeared to acknowledge the motion’s limited capacities prior to the vote, saying in a tweet that she called on all parties to “recognize the climate emergency and send a unanimous message across party lines.”

And when it comes down to it, that’s exactly what such motions are designed to do: send a message.

“The House has frequently brought forth resolutions in order to show support for an action or outlook,” the procedural rules note.

A number of other jurisdictions have also taken similar steps, with the cities of Vancouver, Kingston and Ottawa all declaring climate emergencies.

Those municipal motions carried varying degrees of calls to action, with the Vancouver motion requiring city staff to come up with new proposals for how to reduce emissions and report back to the city council, while Ottawa’s declaration allocated $250,000 to implement several reviews of municipal emissions strategies.

Kingston’s declaration did not include specific, actionable goals but was billed as a way to kick-start conversations among city officials ahead of strategic planning sessions scheduled for the city’s municipal spending priorities.

The United Kingdom also became the first federal jurisdiction in the world to declare a climate emergency last month.

That motion also does not compel the government there to act.

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WATCH: Now that Kingston has declared a climate emergency, what does it mean?

Click to play video: 'Now that Kingston has declared a climate emergency, what does it mean?'
Now that Kingston has declared a climate emergency, what does it mean?

The Canadian motion passed with 186 votes in favour and 63 opposed.

But of those, the voting record shows not a single one of the main party leaders were present for the vote.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was not there, nor were Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer or NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

Trudeau was in Toronto on Monday afternoon for the victory parade celebrating the Toronto Raptors winning the NBA Championship and then was in Montreal in the late afternoon and evening for meetings with Muslim leaders and the Quebec Community Groups Network, which represents minority English community organizations in that province.

Scheer was also in Toronto on Monday afternoon for the parade, as was Singh.

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It’s not clear from the notices of scheduled events shared with media where either Singh or Scheer were that evening after the parade.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was in attendance and voted in favour of both the motion and amendments that had been proposed by the Conservatives that called on the government to acknowledge reports that it is not on track to hit its Paris Agreement targets and present another plan to do so.

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