PM edging away from climate issue

Instead of waiting for U.S., Canada might strike out on its own

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The Gazette, Sunday, January 31, 2010

Tomorrow is the notional deadline for countries to fill in the blanks on the Copenhagen agreement on climate change by stating their targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

To be clear, each country can establish its own mitigation targets, and does not have to say how they will be achieved.

Canada is expected to maintain its previously announced target of a 20-per-cent reduction below 2006 levels by 2020. There's no requirement to announce a longer-term target of, say, a 70-per-cent reduction by 2050. And there's no need for a roadmap, although Environment Minister Jim Prentice is scheduled to give a major address on Monday in Calgary.

After the cop-out in Copenhagen, which saw the dysfunctional UN process completely discredited, there's a major opportunity for Stephen Harper to hit the re-set button this year as host of the G8 and G20.

Yet in his speech to the Davos Conference on Thursday, specifically meant to be a G8 and G20 agenda-setter, he mentioned climate change only in passing, among other issues such as piracy on the high seas and nuclear proliferation.

"Climate change," he said, "disproportionately threatens the peoples least capable of adapting to it." This can be read as a Canadian endorsement of the $30-billion "Start-Up" transition fund that was on the table at Copenhagen.

There is a tradition that each G8 host chooses an agenda item for the summit. In 1988 at Toronto, Brian Mulroney put the environment on the agenda of what was then the G7. Climate change would have been an obvious choice for Harper for both the G8 in Muskoka and the G20 at the Toronto Convention Centre in June. Instead, he has announced that "as president of the G8, Canada will champion a major initiative to improve the health of women and children in the world's most vulnerable regions."

Where did that come from? Straight out of nowhere. While this is undoubtedly a worthy initiative, there is no policy narrative to support it. Nor is there any money on the table so far. Women's interest groups seemed as surprised as everyone else. Is Harper sincerely motivated, or is this a political gambit?

It might be that on climate change, Harper is waiting for Barack Obama. Well, he could be waiting quite a while. Both Harper and Prentice have previously noted that Canada's climate change policy is closely "aligned" with the Obama administration. The economic benefit is obvious. The political benefit is that Harper now gets to hang with Obama rather than with George W. Bush.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Last June, in the run-up to Copenhagen, the U.S. House narrowly passed the Waxman-Markey bill that would reduce GHG emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, along with a cap- and-trade regime that would allow big emitters to buy credits from entities exceeding mitigation targets.

But that bill is now in limbo in the U.S. Senate, with no prospect that it will be passed anytime soon.

Here is how Obama referred to it in his State of the Union Address on Wednesday: "I am grateful to the House for passing such a bill last year. And this year, I'm eager to help advance the bi-partisan effort in the Senate."

This is leadership? Most of Obama's speech was a populist tirade against the banks, Washington, and lobbyists.

On climate change, he added: "I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But here's the thing - even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future, because the nation that leads the clean-energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy."

"Clean energy" was mentioned seven times in Obama's speech. This is how both Democrats and Republicans frame the climate change and environmental issue in an effort to achieve a consensus. But there is no U.S. consensus in view.

And having invested so heavily in Obama on climate change, the challenge for Harper and Prentice might be in elegantly decoupling from a policy going nowhere, and striking out on our own. Speaking of "enlightened sovereignty," as Harper was at Davos, this might be the way to go.

At the end of the day, this is about leadership.

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