Canada: a climate change loser

TORONTO, Canada — Canada has so far won seven “fossil awards” at the Copenhagen climate conference, given by environmentalists to countries deemed to be blocking progress at the United Nations summit. No country has won more.

Canadians have the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper to thank for this dubious distinction. One leading pollster, Alan Gregg, put it this way: “You can throw a rock at the Conservative [government] caucus, and possibly the cabinet, and hit a climate change denier.”

Canadians are not used to being international renegades, particularly on issues with a moral imperative. But Harper has given the clear impression since coming to power in 2006 that he doesn’t buy talk of a planet imperiled by human-induced global warming.

His government was initially content with not having a climate change policy. It restricted itself to pronouncing the 1992 Kyoto Protocol a failure, noting the previous Liberal government signed the treaty and then watched Canada develop one of the worst carbon emission records in the world.

The election of U.S. President Barack Obama, who made dealing with global warming a top policy initiative, forced the Harper government to take note. It promptly responded with the least creative alternative possible: It would wait for the Obama administration to announce its plan to reduce carbon emissions, and then match it.

Harper has applied this "me too" approach at almost every turn. It was initially reported that he would not attend the Copenhagen conference, where a deal to succeed Kyoto is to be hammered out. It apparently wasn’t worth his time. But then Obama announced he would be going, and Harper suddenly declared that he, too, would attend.

Harper arrived Thursday, as Canada was being widely denounced by environmentalists and European allies as the laggards of the conference. Some were still snickering about an elaborate hoax played on Harper’s government by a group of American pranksters known as the Yes Men.

The hoax included a press release on Environment Canada letterhead announcing Canada would implement the toughest carbon emission cuts in the world, and give poor countries $13 billion to help deal with the ravages of climate change.

There was a time when that kind of stance would have been considered eminently Canadian. But times have changed. Harper’s spokesperson, Dimitri Soudas, angrily denounced the hoax Tuesday and demanded that a leading Canadian environmentalist — who had nothing to do with the hoax — apologize for criticizing Canada at the summit. Questioning the patriotism of opponents, on any issue, has become a favorite tactic of the Harper government.

But some of the sharpest criticism came from the premiers and environment ministers of Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia — provinces that together represent 75 percent of Canada’s population.

From Copenhagen, Quebec Premier Jean Charest warned that Canada’s feeble fight against climate change could see it become the target of an international carbon tax imposed on countries with lax emission goals. That would hit the export-based economies of Ontario and Quebec hard.

The debate raised concerns about Canada’s fragile national unity. Charest grumbled that Harper seemed willing to leave his province exposed to the international consequences of a weak climate change policy simply to please the oil-rich western provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Alberta is home to the tar sands, an oil deposit about the size of Florida. With 175 billion barrels of proven reserves, it’s the biggest deposit outside of Saudi Arabia. But extracting oil from the tar-like mess of bitumen and sand unleashes massive amounts of greenhouse gases. Virtually all of the oil extracted flows south to the U.S.

Alberta is the power base of Harper’s Conservative Party. Not surprisingly, Canada’s Environment Minister, Jim Prentice, announced Tuesday that the Alberta oil sands may get a special break on carbon emission cuts. Companies developing the oil sands might not have to cut emissions as much as companies in other sectors of the economy.

Prentice made the admission after the CBC news network published draft government documents indicating the government was poised to abandon greenhouse emission goals set in 2007. Back then, the government had said it would reduce emissions by 20 percent by 2020.

The documents note that greenhouse gas emission from the oil sands will grow 165 percent by 2020. The government proposes to cut that growth by 10 percent. Critics say that would make it impossible to meet the 2020 reduction targets.

In a sense, Prentice blamed the U.S. He noted that legislation making its way through the U.S. Congress — dubbed the Waxman-Markey bill after its authors, Democrats Henry Waxman and Edward Markey — would allow special breaks for energy-hungry industries dependent on trade.

Canada’s "me too" policy means it would adopt similar breaks, and companies developing the oil sands might therefore benefit. The Harper government seems to be saying that if Americans are concerned about carbon emissions from the “dirty oil” they import from the Alberta oil sands, it’s up to the U.S. to do something about it.

Canada once led on these kinds of issue. Now, it’s happy to follow, while dragging its feet.