Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama’s soft language on the climate change agenda was expected for a first visit, say environmentalists, but the Canadian government is still a “laggard” on tackling the coming climate crisis which makes it difficult to have a “serious” bilateral discussion on the topic.
“I think it was entirely to be expected that the language would be diplomatic and friendly. What matters for addressing the issue is substance and I think it’s Canada’s lack of substance to date on serious policies to cut emissions, both on the spending side and on the regulatory side that has prevented anything more ambitious to date in that discussion,” Matthew Bramley, director of climate change at the Pembina Institute, said of the two leaders’ short meeting on Feb. 19 in Ottawa.
Mr. Bramley said because Mr. Obama is committed to a hard cap-and-trade system and has invested $76-billion to develop renewable energies, while the Canadian government’s “Turning the Corner” plan released in April 2007 outlines a less stringent “intensity-based” system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and offered no new funding for renewable energy in its recent budget, there was no “meaningful” discussion to tackle climate change in a North American context.
“It essentially amounts to talking together about things that each of the governments were already planning to do. Certainly in the context of urgency of reducing greenhouse gas pollution, I think it’s a disappointing outcome that is not going result in significant emissions reductions anytime soon,” Mr. Bramley said. “I think the key reason for that outcome however is that the government of Canada simply didn’t have anything more substantive to bring to the table.”
Mr. Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) met with Mr. Obama in a closed-door working luncheon and, in addition a number of talks on the economy and Afghanistan, emerged with a “clean energy dialogue” that would “expand collaboration” on clean energy research and development. It would also “coordinate research and demonstrations of carbon capture and sequestration technology at coal-fired plants” and allow the two countries to “consult and share information on the demonstration and deployment of smart grid technology.”
In his campaign, Mr. Obama said he would put one million plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015, ensure 10 per cent of the United States’ electricity is generated by renewable sources by 2012 and 25 per cent by 2025 and implement a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.
In contrast, the Conservative government’s environmental platform promised “building a clean energy superpower” by reducing regulatory and other barriers to installing a northern gas pipeline, prohibiting tar sands oil from being exported to high polluting countries for refining, investing $1.5-billion in biofuels and requiring that five per cent of gasoline content be made with renewables, investing $1.48-billion to produce renewable energy and “generating 90 per cent of our electricity from non-emitting sources by 2020” such as hydro, nuclear, clean coal and wind. The Canadian government’s “Turning the Corner” plan promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent below 2006 levels by 2020 and 70 per cent by 2050 using an intensity-based approach.
At the press conference, Mr. Harper said the differences between the two regimes are not “near as stark” as some would suggest. “When I look at the President’s platform, the kind of targets his administration has laid out for the reduction of greenhouse gases are very similar to ours,” he said. “We have intensity, they have absolute. But the truth is these are just two different ways of measuring the same thing. You can convert one to the other if that’s what you want to do.”
Environmentalists said while it’s true that intensity-based calculations could be converted to absolute, it depends on how stringent the regulations are and that loopholes in them will not be exploited. “In theory, you can measure any given emissions level using absolute or intensity but in practice, what intensity means is a failure to put a hard cap on emissions, generous treatment to the sectors that have the fastest growth. In Canada’s case, that’s the oil sands,” Mr. Bramley said.
Environmental Defence policy director Aaron Freeman said Mr. Obama was showing “real leadership,” while the Canadian government is “stuck in a holding pattern,” but said he was not disappointed in the watered-down “dialogue” which discussed burying carbon and developing technology rather than outlining a concrete plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “I’m more concerned with Obama’s deeds than his words and his actions, his deeds, have been very encouraging,” he said.
Stephen Hazell, executive director of Sierra Club of Canada, told The Hill Times last week that President Obama was not forceful with his language on climate change because it was his first foreign diplomatic visit and he did not want to put out a negative approach.
“He has staked his reputation on being a consensus builder, a conciliator, someone who wants to listen to what other countries have to say, the last thing he wanted was for there to be some sort of split or discordant tone with Canada on his first trip,” he said, adding that Mr. Obama has been consistent in his commitment to a strong climate change strategy. “He achieved that objective in such a very skillful way.”
At a press conference at the end of the meeting, Mr. Harper told reporters that he was “optimistic” about having a North American partner on the climate change file. “As we all know, Canada has had great difficulty developing an effective regulatory regime alone in the context of an integrated continental economy,” he said. “It’s very hard to have a tough regulatory system here when we are competing with an unregulated economy south of the border. So we’ll be watching what the United States does. We’ll be looking at opportunities for harmonization to make our policies as effective as they can.”
While he said that the Liberals were no better when they were in government, Mr. Hazell noted that as the leader of the Canadian Alliance, Mr. Harper said the Kyoto Protocol was “a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations” and would destroy the oil and gas industry.
Mr. Harper’s statement that the government was unable to develop a climate strategy by itself “is the most breathtaking revisionism” he has ever heard.
The Canadian government is effectively “twiddling its thumbs” and waiting for an American-made strategy, Mr. Hazell said, which is not helpful. Mr. Freeman agreed.
“The earlier that we can get our economy off of fossil fuels the more of an advantage we’re going to have. If we wait and see what everyone else is doing before we act, we will fall further behind,” Mr. Freeman said. “This wait and see approach is just another example of more excuses for inaction. It’s digging Canada deeper and deeper into its hole.”
Mr. Bramley pointed out that the Canadian government has committed to regulating industrial greenhouse gas emissions beginning Jan. 1, 2010.
If the Conservative government began now to implement a cap-and-trade system and started the regulations as planned in 2010, it would give Canada credibility in negotiating with the U.S. on a North American strategy and at Copenhagen, Denmark, when the UN meets to negotiate the global standards.
“Waiting to see what the Americans do first of all is an abdication of leadership, and secondly it’s the worst possible way to have any influence over U.S. decisions,” he said. “We have to move as quickly as possible to put forward our own detailed policy proposals and if at all possible to implement them before the U.S. so that we have a track record of credibility to point to.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Harper spoke about how both Canadian and American governments are “making large investments” in carbon capture and storage technologies, but Mr. Freeman said Canada should be investing in more cost effective technologies. Carbon capture and storage is better suited for coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions.
“Coal burns all in one place. You dig it out of the ground and then you send it to a power plant, and it all burns in the power plant,” explained Mr. Freeman, making it easier to capture the emissions and bury them.
For the tar sands, the oil would be sent to an upgrader, at which point the carbon would have to be captured, and then it would be sent to a refiner, and the carbon captured again.
“So now you’ve got two,” he said. “Eighty per cent of the emissions are when you burn it, and that happens in a car or airplane, so you can’t have a CCS operation in a car or an airplane, so [there’s] very limited potential to reduce emissions from the tar sands and quite impractical from an economic perspective.”
Mr. Obama spoke about advancing “carbon reducing technologies” and said “there are no silver bullets” to solving climate change problems. “If we can figure out how to capture the carbon, that would make an enormous difference in how we operate,” he said of the American coal-fired plants. “Right now the technologies are at least not cost effective.”
Mr. Hazell said although the “dialogue” is more of a diplomatic statement, the new relationship will force Canada to change its course on climate change action.
“I think Obama gets it. He really understands what the potential of catastrophic climate change actually means in a way our guys don’t,” he said. “The President is demonstrating some leadership. I think what’s going to happen is we are going to be policy takers in terms of green house gas emissions reductions target and we will kind of be following along like somebody’s little brother trying to keep up with the United States.”
While this is an “encouraging” step forward, Mr. Freeman said he’s worried that the Canadian government will not go far enough to stimulate a green economy.
“My concern as a Canadian is that Canada is going to be left trying to sell outdated technologies like dirty oil and gas-guzzling cars,” he said. “Unfortunately they still seem to be stuck in this holding pattern of making ridiculous excuses to not act and they are still allowing the tar sands to hold the rest of the country hostage on climate change policy.”