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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

Judge the government's emissions targets by its exit strategies Add to ...

When countries gather for the Copenhagen climate-change negotiations, Canada will be brandishing a greenhouse-gas emissions target that no one believes is credible.

Foreign governments that have analyzed the Canadian target know it to be unattainable. Domestic experts who have examined it know it to be unreachable. Senior civil servants who understand the file know it to be more spin than substance.

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Yet, in the spin doctor world of Ottawa, this inflated target will be held aloft as evidence of Stephen Harper's government's commitment to something it is not committed to at all - a steep reduction in emissions.

The government's target, or promise, is to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 from a starting point of 2006. That the government doesn't even believe its own target can be observed by how it's been preparing two exit strategies.

The first is to tie Canadian action to U.S. policy. Ever since Barack Obama took office, the Harper government has consistently said Canada would follow the United States. Waiting for Mr. Obama has been the essence of Canadian climate-change policy. When the administration introduced stricter tailpipe emission standards for vehicles, the Harper government sensibly went along.

But the government knows the United States remains a long way from legislating an emissions-reduction target. That means delay, which is great for a Canadian government not really committed to fast action.

Delay also means a diminished likelihood of meeting the 20/20 target; but, as we said, the target is for public consumption only.

In the U.S. Congress, the House of Representatives has produced a bill envisaging a 17-per-cent reduction, the nominal level now embraced by the Obama administration. One Senate bill offers a 20-per-cent reduction - the Canadian target. Once senators from coal- and oil-producing states get finished with the issue, the Senate's target will be much below 20 per cent.

The two U.S. legislative bodies must then reconcile their differences, if they can, and the administration must sign off on the final product. Such is the labyrinthine U.S. system, at the end of which the U.S. target will be well below 17 per cent.

At which point, the Harper government will be able to cheer privately and tell Canadians that, since we must tag along with the Americans, the 20/20 Copenhagen target will just have to be lowered. Crocodile tears will flood Ottawa, and the Conservative caucus will treat itself to beers all around.

Just in case another exit strategy is needed, the Harper government has also insisted it won't sign anything unless big developing countries (read China and India) make binding commitments to emissions reductions. Since those commitments might be difficult to achieve, it's a perfect out for a government that really doesn't want to do much at home.

Let's be fair, however. Canada is not the only country still jockeying in these negotiations. Brazil has pledged a 40-per-cent reduction (in part by slowing down devastating deforestation), South Korea 30 per cent and Russia 25 per cent. These are opening gambits.

There remain so many differences between developing and developing countries, between the largest per capita emitter (the United States) and the largest overall emitter (China), between aggressive Western Europeans (Britain, France, Germany and Sweden) and more cautious North Americans, that Copenhagen has already been downgraded from the end point of negotiations to a way station.

As Copenhagen begins, Canada is seen almost universally as a laggard, even a hypocrite, at the table. Canada's record under the previous Liberal government was appalling, because of the gap between promise and action, the widest of the Kyoto Protocol signatories.

Even the Harper government's stimulus spending paid little attention to green measures. According to a study from the HSBC bank, reported in the Financial Times, only 8 per cent of Canada's stimulus measures were green.

That figure represented the lowest share of green spending of the stimulus packages of South Korea, the European Union as a whole, China, France, Germany, the United States and Australia. How Mr. Harper, who had to be embarrassed into attending the Copenhagen summit, will explain such low spending - and the government's overall lousy record - will be handed to the spin machine.

The world has sized up the Harperites, studied their policies, noted the Prime Minister's lack of commitment, observed the government's exit ramps and is awaiting another shabby Canadian performance marked by spin at home and lack of substance abroad.

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