Canada wins few friends on climate

An activist wears a mask depicting the face of Canadian PM Stephen Harper in Durban Canada's PM has incurred the wrath of campaigners

Over the years, the US has become used to being portrayed as the chief villain in UN climate negotiations.

Think of Congress's immediate declaration that it would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 even before the ink on the document had dried.

Think of President George W Bush's withdrawal in 2001, and the famous scene on the final morning at the Bali talks four years ago, when the US delegation was told that if it would not lead, it should at least get out of the way.

After the brief love-in engendered three years ago by President Obama's pledge to renew US leadership on climate change, it's back to business as usual, with the Obama administration either unable or unwilling to take on a truculent Congress, especially with a presidential election approaching.

What's changed is the additional opprobrium that campaigners and delegations anxious for a deal here are pouring on the US's northern neighbour, Canada.

There are two reasons why; and they are interlinked.

One is the government's stance on its Kyoto Protocol target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions between 1990 and 2012.

The declaration back in 2007 that it wouldn't try to meet the target has been followed by the widely-circulated rumour that it is about to withdraw formally from the protocol.

The second reason is tar sands - the vast deposits of bitumen in the west of the country that promise to sustain Canada's status as an oil producer for decades to come.

Extracting something useable from tar sands, or oil sands as they're also known, takes substantially more energy than extracting "conventional" oil.

That means substantially bigger greenhouse gas emissions.

The accounting is precise; but in broad terms, extensive tar sands development would not be compatible with continued adherence to the Kyoto Protocol.

In recent years, the approach of Stephen Harper's government has been to align its position on climate change as closely as possible to the US.

Oil refinery in Canada Canada's green credentials are in the spotlight

Its pledge to the UN climate convention (UNFCCC) under the Copenhagen Accords in 2009 even cites the US as a model: by 2020, to cut emissions from 2005 levels by "17%, to be aligned with the final economy-wide emissions target of the United States in enacted legislation".

In other words, whatever the US does, we'll do.

While it's unusual for any country to let its neighbour decide its policies, from a trade point of view, it's completely understandable.

The US needs oil, and - at least officially - doesn't want to buy so much of it from the Middle East.

Canada has oil.

The US will probably need to explore novel sources of fresh water in the near future, with rivers in the southwest extracted beyond sustainable limits and with climate change threatening to push them further into the red.

Canada has fresh water in abundance, and engineers have already proposed massive engineering projects to pipe it to the east and west coasts of the US.

Throw in timber and food - especially as climate projections largely show conditions for agriculture improving in Canada even as they worsen in the southern US - and it's clear that Canada can in large part supply what the US needs in future.

Whatever the economic logic, the Canadian attitude is winning few friends at the talks here.

While other delegations hold news conferences in the main venue that are open to all reporters, Canada's have been held in an off-site hotel on an invitation-only basis.

When Environment Minister Peter Kent delivered his set-piece speech in the plenary hall, he was greeted by a group of six young activists wearing "Turn your back on Canada" shirts.

They were ejected and barred from the conference as a result. But not before one of them was able to claim that while the minister was on record as saying he would defend the tar sands industry, "I have yet to hear him say that he's here to defend my future".

In the Canadian press briefing I went to Mr Kent twice described the tar sands industry as "responsible and sustainable" - a phrase that garnered a fair amount of comment when I tweeted it.

Elizabeth May, leader of the Canadian Green Party and its one green MP, later came down to the BBC booth for an interview on World Service radio.

In previous years, she said, opposition MPs had been allowed on the Canadian delegation to UN climate meetings.

Here, she'd been refused; which was why she was wearing the badge of Papua New Guinea.

Given that Canada produces less than 2% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, you might ask why it matters.

One reason is that countries that produce and export significant amounts of fossil fuels are more important to climate change than their own emissions would indicate.

It is their exports that the rest of the world burns.

Their opposition to global climate change agreements keeps the prices of their energy exports low against "green" competitors such as wind and solar, reducing economic incentives to conserve, especially when subsidies are taken into account.

The second reason is trust. Canada pledged internationally to meet its commitment on the Kyoto Protocol, which was supposed to be legally binding.

As one African delegate explained it to me: "if you make a legally-binding promise, you should keep to it".

Richard Black, Environment correspondent Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    "I have yet to hear him say that he's here to defend my future".

    1. The acknowledged level of uncertainty means that a climate model’s long term predictions are worthless.

    2. A rise in global temperature of 4 degrees is, of itself, of no concern to us. Our fear comes from the effects on our climate predicted by the climate models.

    3. See item 1.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    A couple of minor details:

    1. Kyoto is a joke. The world's worst polluters (see China) are not included, making the entire agreement completely ineffectual. Canada will sign a proper pact.

    2. The oil sands are not "also known as" the oil sands, They are oil sands. They have never been, "tar sands". Tar is a completely different substance. This is science, not semantics. Please check your facts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    @GavinRB Actually, they're called bituminous sands, technically speaking. not that I really care, it's just when people pompously go out of their way to correct others then get it wrong themselves, it kinda annoys me

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    But I was told that changing the bulb in my bathroom would save the planet???

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Im all for Sustainability but Climate Change is nothing to concern ourselves with, the climate was much more unstable in the Classical and Medieval periods.

    Our Climate is better then it was 1000 years ago, isnt this proof enough that we clearly are not causing anything?!?! If anything Canada is the only country capable of seeing reason!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    God, oil is disgusting

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    "Our Climate is better then it was 1000 years ago, isnt this proof enough that we clearly are not causing anything?!?! If anything Canada is the only country capable of seeing reason!"

    Interesting that you cite no sources, and that you will find no credible scientists who agree with you. Seems to be you choose to believe what is most convenient.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    "Our Climate is better then it was 1000 years ago"

    What on earth (literally) do you mean by 'better'? How do you know how stable the GLOBAL climate was in the 'Classical (whenever that is) and Medieval periods?

    As Hansen has pointed out, burn the tar sands and it's game over for the climate, but you'd have to take your head out of the sand to spot any sensible science.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Okay, fine, go ahead and deny that climate change is a problem. You're wrong, but go ahead and deny it.

    Oil isn't brilliant as an energy source, largely because it isn't sustainable - it will eventually run out.

    At the moment, we are woefully under-prepared for this eventuality. Where will our plastics come from? How about pharmaceuticals?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The bituminous tar oily sands are an inefficient and highly polluting manner of meeting energy "needs" and it shows how desperate the oil companies are becoming that they are busy utilizing them now.

    Energy "saving" light bulbs are a weird and convoluted scam whereby people now have arrays of toxic bulbs that they leave on most of the time so end up using more electricity than ever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    To Schism who wrote"he climate was much more unstable in the Classical and Medieval periods."

    NO IT Wasn't. No Denier has ever showed me scientific research that supports their beliefs. All they can do is regurgitate the guff that the Deniers put out, funded to the tune of $1billion per year by the Oil lobby in the US and Saudi.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Canada is hardly monolithic; most of the fossil fuels and fossilised brains are in Alberta. In BC it is very easy to forget that there a lot more of Canada beyond the Rockies, or even to remember that BC is part of Canada at all. 'Scuse the pun, but don't tar all Canadians with an Albertan brush.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Whilst purporting to have no more knowledge than the common man (which is the case for most people despite the strength of their views), it does seem that the overwhelming opinion from credible and unbiased scientists is that climate change is a real thing.

    Funny that the people who disagree almost always have interests in "dirty" industries (for example travel, motor and petro-chemical).

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    If some misanthropic 'Greens' are turning their backs on somebody, I instinctively feel like extending the hand of friendship.

    Canada's government is expressing the will of its people. Isn't that what they were elected to do?

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I don't understand this article.

    What friends is Canada not winning? China is not going to sign or the US. The only examples you give are a few students and a "Green" party member. Well duh!

    It looks to me like Canada will be better off with global warming, why should they want to sign?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Canada cannot possibly win friends amongst a crowd of pseudo scientific psychotic politicians who 'care' about the planet! I wish the UK would follow Canada and stop all green grant monies that will neither help energy production [output being abysmally low] or
    save the world!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    At the moment, we are woefully under-prepared for this eventuality. Where will our plastics come from? How about pharmaceuticals?

    Hemp, which is sustainable. Hemp was demonised in the 1930s to get rid of it in favour of oil. There are thousands of uses for it. The model T ford was partly made of hemp and ran on hemp oil.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Oil is a no win game for the west, you are true. I think synthetics from coal could replace oil for plastics but I could be wrong.

    My problem with all this huff is that the green lobby insist on windmills rather than solar and nuclear which are proven. In fact we could switch to a hydrogen economy with relative ease if these two were embraced. NUclear cracks the water, hydrogen burns to become?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Thank you all those who like me think this whole debate is a nonsense.
    For those who are so concerned about this planet they should be focusing on the horifying increase in the worlds population which by itself will produce misery for millions and will do nothing for the quality of life as we know it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    wow! Some of the comments here are as daft as the brushes! The 'little Ice age' was caused by a drop in average temp on 1.5 deg c. We are already facing an inevitable increase of at least 2deg - so the changes are likely to be substantial.


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