The road to Copenhagen

Harper and Obama agree cap-and-trade is the way to go on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions

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The Gazette, Sunday, November 29, 2009

It was always inevitable that if Barack Obama decided to attend the climate-change conference in Copenhagen, Stephen Harper would, too.

Harper was a holdout, as recently as last week, on the grounds that it was a ministerial-level meeting, and that he would attend only if Copenhagen were transformed into a heads-of-government conference.

Well, the presence of the president of the United States automatically elevates Copenhagen to the stature of a global summit.

It will also create something of a carbon footprint - with Air Force One, a Boeing 747, the biggest plane in the sky. Not to mention the backup plane, press plane and the transport planes for the presidential motorcade. The president's limo, known as the beast, is quite the gas guzzler itself.

Obama's going to be in the neighbourhood to collect his undeserved, or at least premature, Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Dec 10. (It's a white- tie event and, unlike at the White House, there will be no uninvited guests.)

Harper's going to be there because Obama's going to be there, which is reason enough in itself.

But there are plenty of other compelling reasons for Harper to attend, beginning with the imperative of knocking down the myth that he's a climate-change denier, while Obama is portrayed as saving the planet.

The fact is that in terms of targets for emissions reductions, if not results, Harper and Canada have a better story to tell than the United States.

To wit: Harper is proposing a 20-per-cent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from 2006 levels by 2020, and up to 80 per cent by 2050. In the near term from 2012, Obama is proposing a 17-per-cent reduction of GHG emissions.

Opposition leader Michael Ignatieff, in a policy speech at Laval University the other day, called for a return to the Kyoto target of reducing emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. This is simply a reminder of Liberal failure on this file, for signing on to an unachievable target and seeing it increase by nearly 25 per cent instead. As Ignatieff himself famously declared during the 2006 Liberal leadership race: "We didn't get it done!"

But Ignatieff and Harper are agreed that a cap-and- trade regime is the way to go. And Harper is on the same page as Obama, in that that is where this is going in the U.S. in terms of an emissions-reductions regime. With an integrated North American economy, a level playing field is essential.

Cap and trade will allow industries that exceed permissible emissions levels to purchase credits from companies that exceed reduction targets.

Some Canadian industries have a surprisingly good story to tell. The hard-pressed forestry industry, for instance, has exceeded the ambitious Kyoto targets by a factor of seven - forestry is 44 per cent below the 1990 emissions levels. And forestry companies stand to make windfall profits from cap and trade, a deserved reward for transforming the industry from an environmental laggard to a world leader.

Obama is stepping up and playing a role of moral leadership on climate change. What he's taking to Copenhagen as the American proposal is essentially the bill that narrowly cleared the U.S. House. It is far from clear that Obama will return from Copenhagen with the votes to pass it in the Senate, where Kyoto died on the watch of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Harper, on the other hand, will have no problem getting a cap-and-trade regime through the House, and he should have a bill in his pocket by the time he chairs the G8 and G20 in Muskoka and Toronto next June, so he can show the world some positive results on what he has called "the most important issue of our time."

Not that he'll get any credit from the environmental activists, who would rather shout at the rain than achieve results. "Bordering on criminal" is how the Sierra Club put its allegation that the PM has neglected the issue.

I've been to this movie. In 1992, all the environmental interest groups were invited to the Langevin Block for their advice on a speech setting the Canadian agenda for the Rio Earth Summit.

Unanimously, they urged the prime minister, Brian Mulroney, to publicly denounce his friend, the first George Bush, for inaction on climate change and refusal to sign the bio-diversity accord.

"You guys have got be kidding," I said.

They weren't. Neither did they have a single positive thing to say about an environmental record that included the Montreal Accord on ozone depletion, the acid rain accord with the Bush administration, the creation of six new national parks, and Canada's leadership at Rio in being the first industrial nation to sign both the atmospheric and bio-diversity agreements.

Nearly 15 years later, Mulroney was named the greenest PM in Canadian history. The lesson for Harper: Ignore the critics, do the right thing, and history, as well as your own grandchildren, will thank you for it.

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