For decades, Canada has taken pride in punching above its weight on the international stage. Now it appears we’re the ones absorbing the body blows. As scientists, activists, diplomats, and political leaders gather in Copenhagen for the United Nations’ 15th convention on climate change, Dec. 7 to Dec. 18, the northern hemisphere’s “helpful fixer” is undergoing a radical—and unrelentingly negative—image makeover. Canada “is now to climate what Japan is to whaling,” George Monbiot, a columnist for the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, thundered late last month, citing the Harper government’s go-slow negotiating stance as “the major” obstacle to a new global agreement on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. “Until now I believed that the nation that has done the most to sabotage a new climate change agreement was the United States,” wrote Monbiot, a green campaigner and bestselling author. “I was wrong. The real villain is Canada.”
And he is not alone in that opinion. At a UN climate conference in Bangkok in October, delegates from developing countries walked out of a negotiating session (en masse, say environmental groups who were at the meeting; just five or six countries, counters Michael Martin, our ambassador for climate change) to protest Canada’s suggestion that the Kyoto Protocol—the basis for the Copenhagen negotiations—be replaced with an entirely new anti-warming pact. In early November, at another UN meeting in Barcelona, Canada was named “Fossil of the Week” by the 450 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in attendance for its efforts to “block or stall” climate negotiations. (“If the price for having strong, capable, tough negotiators at the table is being singled out,” Environment Minister Jim Prentice said at the time, “then so be it. Bring it on.”)
During the Commonwealth summit in Trinidad and Tobago at the end of November, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon pointedly called for Canada to pick up the pace of negotiations and adopt “ambitious” greenhouse gas reduction targets. And a coalition of scientists and NGOs asked the 53-nation body to suspend Canada’s membership—a punishment that in the past has been meted out to such rogue states as Zimbabwe and apartheid-era South Africa—for “threatening the lives of millions of people in developing countries” through its inaction on climate change.
“Canada is effectively negotiating in bad faith, undermining the whole agreement,” says Saleemul Huq, a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who joined in the suspension calls. “At least everyone else is trying to reach their Kyoto targets. Canada is doing absolutely nothing.”
The question is how a country that is responsible for about two per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (China and the United States are collectively responsible for around 35 per cent) has come to take such a disproportionate share of the blame. The answer is a mixture of politics, bad timing, and—if Canada’s critics are to believed—ill intentions.
When Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government signed the Kyoto Protocol in April 1998, after years of international negotiations, there were significant doubts about whether the treaty would ever actually come into force. Although 187 countries are party to the deal, Kyoto only called for a few dozen developed nations to cut their emissions, and wasn’t legally binding until countries representing 55 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions as of 1990 gave it political ratification. (That occurred in December 2005 after the Russian Duma’s surprise endorsement.) Even then, Canada’s agreed target—a six per cent GHG reduction from 1990 levels by 2012—was based on another assumption: that the United States would at least try to move toward its own eight per cent reduction target, even if Congress failed to ratify the deal. But George W. Bush beat Al Gore in the 2000 election, and the issue of global warming went into a political deep-freeze in the U.S.
John Drexhage, one of Canada’s Kyoto negotiators, now director of climate change and energy for the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Ottawa, says the sensible thing for the Liberals to do at that point was return to the table and ask for a break. Instead, Chrétien pushed ahead, having Parliament ratify the treaty in December 2002, burnishing his own legacy, and leaving it to his successor, Paul Martin, to try to figure out how to live up to the commitment. “The Liberals do deserve some share of the blame,” says Drexhage. “It started with them trying to find loopholes—undermining the integrity of the treaty—rather than taking concrete action to reach our target.”
When Stephen Harper’s Conservatives took power in January 2006, they followed through on a campaign promise to flat-out reject Canada’s Kyoto obligations. Instead, the Tories have since pledged to reduce Canada’s GHG emissions by 20 per cent from 2006 levels by 2020 (effectively half of what we promised under Kyoto, eight years later), leaving the details in limbo until the Americans flesh out their own climate change plans. The new target falls far short of the 25-40 per cent reduction from 1990 levels that scientists say industrialized countries must achieve by 2020, if the world is to limit warming to just 2° C and avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. And many in the world community have expressed displeasure at Canada’s modest goals. But what appears to have really put noses out of joint is the aggressive role this country has continued to play in the negotiations over Kyoto’s next phase.
Time and again, Canada has seemed to find itself at odds with the international consensus around the negotiating table. At a Commonwealth meeting in Uganda in the fall of 2007, the Harper government blocked a resolution calling for a “binding commitment” on developed countries to reduce their emissions. (The Prime Minister said his government’s view was that all nations, including emerging economic powerhouses like India, needed firm targets.) At the UN meetings in Poznan, Poland, in 2008, Canada spiked language about “aggregate targets” for the biggest emitters, as well as references to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In Bangkok in October the Canadian delegation insisted that Kyoto-plus should also adopt 2006 as an optional base year—a change that would wipe out any obligation to deal with the country’s 26 per cent rise in GHG emissions since 1990. In Barcelona, Canada quibbled over how climate change adaptation funds might be used—arguing they should not compensate nations for “loss and damage” due to impacts like rising sea levels. Now widely seen as a perpetual objector, Canada has become as welcome at climate conferences as a skunk at a garden party.
M.J. Mace, a climate negotiator for Micronesia and the 37-member Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), is blunt when asked about her experiences with the Canadian delegation. “They’re certainly polite, but in terms of substance, it’s like they’re thumbing their nose at the process,” she says from Copenhagen. “And as we’ve gotten closer to putting numbers on the table, I think Canada has become more problematic.” Mace describes the process of building a UN-style consensus on climate change as painstaking. But as everyone else struggles to move just from point A to point B, Canada frequently demands a detour to the margins of the map. “They have a lot of creative ideas that lead to circular discussions.”
The departure from Canada’s traditional role as a bridge-builder at such international gatherings has not gone unnoticed. “Those who observe Canada’s position and tactics definitely agree that we’re not a constructive force,” says Dale Marshall, a policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation’s climate change program. “And Canada is an important enough player that you can’t just gavel through things they object to.” The finger pointing and name-calling as Copenhagen gets underway are really just a public outpouring of frustrations that have been building for years behind closed doors. Marshall says that among NGOs, Canada’s climate change reputation has been in the toilet for at least two years. “At the 2007 meeting in Bali, we tied the U.S. for ‘fossil of the day’ awards. But at every meeting since then, Canada has been the runaway winner. The ‘Colossal Fossil.’ ”
Canada’s Environment Minister Jim Prentice doesn’t seem too rattled by the growing criticism of his government’s record. In an interview shortly before he jetted off to Denmark, he said such concerns exist mostly in the Canadian media, not the minds of other players at the climate change summits. “I can tell you that we’re at the table.
We’re constructive and we’re active,” said Prentice. “Not everyone always agrees with our positions, but we’re there to put Canada’s best interests forward, and we’re doing that.” Canada has been “forceful” in negotiations, but never obstructionist. “We’ve been quite outspoken in our view that the Kyoto Protocol is not working, but through it all we have been focused on achieving a new agreement,” said Prentice, citing projections that 97 per cent of emissions growth in coming years will come from developing nations outside the original deal, like China and India.
Canada does recognize the need to reduce its own emissions rapidly, added the environment minister, but such significant economic changes can’t be made overnight. “It’s everything from the kind of cars we drive to how we produce electricity, to our consumption patterns and everything in between.”
And for those who so clearly hope that the bad publicity will force Stephen Harper into a grand gesture at the summit, Prentice had a message: don’t hold your breath. Canada’s targets are firm, said Prentice, and the details of its climate change plan will be made public at the appropriate time—when it is clear what steps our NAFTA partners will take—and at home, rather than some global forum. “I know there’s angst about Canada’s role, but Canada is not the issue at the Copenhagen negotiations. It’s about bridging the gap between the developed and the developing world and arriving at a treaty that the Americans and the Chinese will sign.”
But if such a deal—either a political framework, or less likely a binding treaty—does emerge in Denmark, will Canada find itself on the wrong side of the table? Earlier this fall, a Pew Center on Global Climate Change report ranking the commitments of developed countries, lumped Canada in among the laggards. Japan has pledged to cut its emission 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020; Russia has done the same. The European Union target is 20 to 30 per cent. Even the current U.S. promises—a 17 per cent cut from 2005 levels by 2020—look to be more profound than what we have promised so far, especially once other U.S. measures like new fuel efficiency standards for cars and green energy initiatives are taken into account, which add up to a 28 to 34 per cent GHG reduction, according to another Washington think tank. (The U.S. is also promising an 83 per cent cut by 2050; Canada’s target is “60 to 70” per cent of 2006 levels by the same year.) And the signs heading into the summit are that the developing world is also getting on board. The Brazilian government has indicated that it will be bringing proposals for reductions of 38 to 42 per cent of current levels by 2020 to Copenhagen. China has announced a goal of cutting the intensity of its carbon emissions 40 to 45 per cent by 2020, from 2005 levels. (It’s a target that would mean slower emissions growth, but could see Chinese GHG output double.) India has embraced an intensity reduction of 20 to 25 percent by 2020 (which still might result in a 90 to 95 per cent increase in carbon emissions).
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.”