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Canada: a climate change loser

Harper's government is content to follow the U.S. on climate change policy.

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.