Canada must act as intermediary between U.S. and the rest

When conference is over, Harper can point to Obama, and say 'I'm with him'

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The Gazette, Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Climate change is a complex issue, both scientifically and politically.

But on both fronts, it can be simplified. First, the world is getting warmer and something must be done about it in terms of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. And second, there is no solution without the engagement of the United States and the leadership of its president.

Canada's part in this is what Canada's role has always been - an intermediary between the U.S. and the rest of the world. And so at the leaders' summit at the conclusion of the Copenhagen conference next week, Stephen Harper can just point to Barack Obama and say, "I'm with him."

As it happens, Canada's goal of reducing emissions by 20 per cent below 2006 levels by 2020, modest though that might be, is slightly more ambitious than Obama's objective of reducing emissions by 17 per cent.

Harper also agrees with Obama on a cap-and-trade system under which companies that fail to meet emission-reduction targets can buy credits from companies that exceed them.

There are three reasons why Canada is going this way. First, the Americans are in favour of cap and trade, and in our integrated economy, we need a level playing field. Second, a cap and trade is the only way of getting the provinces on the same page. Third, the only alternative regime to cap and trade is a carbon tax at the pump and on delivery of home heating oil. It can't be sold politically. Forget it. Remember the Green Shift?

All that being said, the stars are aligning for a successful outcome in Copenhagen, to a degree that would have been considered unlikely only a few weeks ago.

You'd never know success might be in the offing for all the noise of protesters such as Greenpeace, who literally shouted from the rooftop of the Parliament buildings on Monday. They are the storm troopers of the environmental movement. Quite apart from being arrested for public mischief and unauthorized entry, they should be sent the bill for the cost of firefighters rescuing them. There should be grown-up consequences to such juvenile stunts.

But success looms at Copenhagen precisely because the United States has engaged and its president is leading. Obama was first scheduled to stop by Copenhagen today on his way to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo tomorrow. While he was in the neighbourhood, he was going to drop in and give a speech about saving the planet.

But, change of plan; Obama is now flying back to Copenhagen next week at the close of the conference, which has now been transformed into a leaders' summit. This means that U.S. officials believe an agreement is within reach, and that Obama can be instrumental in achieving it. They wouldn't set up him for failure. It could be an agreement in principle, details to be worked out next year by officials of the 192 countries in attendance. Or in a best case, it could be an agreement with binding targets. The dealmaker might well be a fund created by industrialized countries to help emerging and Third-World economies meet lower emissions targets. In any event, it might be much easier for Obama to get an agreement in Copenhagen than to get it ratified by the U.S. Senate, which requires two-thirds approval for treaties. But Senate approval might now be moot, since the Obama administration's opening salvo at Copenhagen on Monday - declaring GHG emissions a health hazard that can be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.

If 17 per cent turns out to be the number, then Harper will be able to adjust Canada's target to get in line with the U.S. Longer term, all sides agree on a goal of reducing GHG emissions by as much as 80 per cent by 2050.

The key to getting the provinces on board is cap and trade, which will enable provinces with more ambitious goals, such as Quebec, to align with provinces that have issues, such as Alberta.

On the acid-rain file in the 1980s, Brian Mulroney got agreement from the seven provinces east of Saskatchewan to reduce their sulphur dioxide emissions by 50 per cent, an instance of leading by example that enabled him to stand before the U.S. Congress in 1988 and declare: "We ask nothing more than this from you." The result was the 1991 acid-rain accord.

Acid rain is a reminder that innovative solutions usually result in gains for industry. The biggest polluter on acid rain was Inco's famous Sudbury smokestack. The company said it faced ruin. The government stood firm, and Inco found a way to filter its CO2 emissions, commercializing them in the process and increasing profits. On climate change, there are industries such as forestry and companies such as Rio TintoAlcan, that are remarkable success stories. Such industries and companies stand to make windfall profits from selling emissions credits, and so they should as a reward for being diligent corporate citizens.

But political leadership is another matter. It begins at the top, and it is time for the prime minister to step up and lead.

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