Miguel Lovera, a member of Paraguay’s negotiating team in Copenhagen, says he has been puzzled by Canada’s positions over the last few years. “We would have expected a much more compassionate role from them in solving this global problem.” Canada, he notes, is among the world’s top 10 GHG emitters in total (eighth), per capita (eighth), and cumulatively over the past century-and-a-half (10th). Lovera says Canada’s negotiating positions—like using 2006 rather than 1990 as the base year—seem to be motivated by a desire to protect Alberta’s oil sands development, rather than the planet. “How come the rest of the world is trying to reduce emissions, especially in fossil fuel production, and Canada has these plans to drastically expand the tar sands?” he asks. “That’s really difficult to grasp.” (Paraguay’s GHG targets coming into Copenhagen are a 49 per cent reduction from 1990 levels by 2017, and a 95 per cent reduction by 2050.)
In fact, for all the lip service about Canada’s cold climate, vast distances and energy-intensive industries, the reality is that going forward with the oil sands will be one of our biggest problems. A 2008 Environment Canada report estimated that GHG emissions from the oil sands will triple between 2006 and 2020, making it “the largest single contributor to Canada’s medium-term emissions growth.” That would make one energy project in one province responsible for 95 per cent of the country’s projected increase in industrial emissions over that period. In other words, whatever brownie points Canada wins internationally for Quebec’s pledge to reduce its GHG output by 20 per cent of 1990 levels by 2020 (the most ambitious target in North America) is nullified by Alberta’s goal of simply stabilizing emissions by 2020; a 58 per cent increase from 1990 levels.
Canada argues, quite rightly, that the oil sands have become an engine of economic prosperity for the entire country, and a vital source of secure energy in a precarious world. But the government’s aggressive efforts to protect our national interests, at perhaps the expense of global progress on climate change, haven’t won us a lot of sympathy. Earlier this fall, Rajendra Pachuari, the head of the IPCC, suggested that Canada take a time out on the oil sands, until carbon capture and storage techniques catch up to rapidly escalating emissions. And international campaigns against Alberta’s “dirty oil” are picking up steam. Now there’s a real danger that the oil sands project could join the seal hunt and the logging of old-growth forests as an emblem of this country’s perceived environmental indifference.
“Canada is going to have to square the circle on what they are doing in the oil sands,” says Melinda Kimble, a U.S. climate change negotiator during the Clinton years, now senior vice-president of the United Nations Foundation, a charity that backs the world body’s initiatives. “Everyone at the table has national interests.” Kimble says the disconnect between Canada’s role in the Kyoto talks—“a very vital and constructive voice”—and its behaviour now is all the more surprising given the turnabout in the U.S. thinking on climate change since Barack Obama took office. (As the summit opened in Copenhagen, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency followed through on the President’s pledge to declare greenhouse gases a danger to public health, paving the way for strict new emissions regulations.) The Harper government has frequently said it intends to follow the U.S. lead on climate change, but now that the direction is clear, is it necessary to wait for Congress to hammer out all the details? “I’m sure the Bush administration was very glad to see countries like Canada and Australia acting in solidarity with the U.S.,” says Kimble. “But there has been a leadership shift. I think Obama is determined to put in place greenhouse gas regulations.”
There have been suggestions that Canada is already feeling the cold shoulder because of its climate change foot-dragging. Ottawa certainly appeared taken aback by Obama’s announcement that he will attend Copenhagen. (Prime Minister Harper followed suit and announced his own trip a couple of days later.) At the Commonwealth meeting there were suggestions that Canada was “sandbagged” by a joint French-British announcement of a $10-billion climate change adaptation fund. UN watchers say Canada’s push for a rotational seat on the Security Council has been damaged, if not submarined, by climate concerns. And foreign diplomats in Ottawa have grown so frustrated that they have taken to calling NGOs to seek advice on how to get the Harper government’s attention on the environment file.
Jeremy Kinsman, a retired diplomat who served as Canada’s ambassador or high commissioner to 15 countries, including Russia and the United Kingdom, wonders why the government is bothering to stake out such a contentious position. “Canadians are acting as if we’re terribly important to the Copenhagen summit.” The reality, he says, is that “we’re going to have to accept whatever comes out of this. We’re going to have to go along with whatever the U.S. agrees.” Canada is vulnerable, especially on the oil sands, both in terms of its international image, and the looming climate change treaty. (Less generous credits for carbon sinks like our boreal forest would make Canada’s reduction targets even more difficult to achieve.)
Kinsman sees a disturbing trend, where a government with a “disdain” for diplomacy has undercut Canada’s traditional international role. “There’s a general impression that Canada is not very engaged in the world anymore, except in Afghanistan,” he says. But even then, from a seasoned diplomat’s perspective, there is never an excuse for the way Canada has been acting at the climate change table. “In the end, it’s not your position, it’s how you behave,” says Kinsman. “Influence is an asset and we’ve run it down.”