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The changing climate and Canadian realities Add to ...

Starting on Monday, Canada can make a fresh start. The government can reinvigorate Canadian leadership on energy, making the country a more energy-efficient, clean-energy-generating and exporting superpower. There will be a cost, but Canada can pursue this path without renouncing its conventional fossil fuels, which remain vital assets that will serve as reliable sources of energy for the foreseeable future.

Global warming presents Canada with choices, and the Copenhagen conference presents Canada with an opportunity. This is not a matter of appeasing international bodies or environmental organizations. Canada should act on its own behalf.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's conclusions about the causes have been the subject of wide debate. Questions have been raised about the science, but the reality of climate change remains.

Many of the planet's life-giving ecosystems are straining from the warming's effects. Even if action is undertaken now, "sea level will continue to rise for centuries after global temperatures have been stabilized, and several metres of sea level rise must be expected over the next centuries," according to the Copenhagen Diagnosis, written by many of the IPCC's top contributors.

But the crisis is still largely invisible; it builds in our atmosphere, feeding back to our oceans and our polar regions, because of rising temperatures.

A consensus scientific view holds that temperature increases need to be limited to 2 degrees in order to stop catastrophic sea-level rises. That, in turn, requires a 50-per-cent global reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050 from 1990 levels. Canada, which emitted 1.7 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases in 2005, should join other countries in reducing emissions.

Taking action to protect future generations will mean new policies at home and new forms of international co-operation. It will mean investing in mitigation - measures that will reduce emissions and slow the warming; and adaptation - measures that will help those subject to damage that can no longer be prevented.

Businesses are increasingly building solar arrays and wind farms, and exporting these technologies to energy-hungry neighbours. They are nurturing carbon markets and making regulatory moves that make fossil fuels more expensive, and are working with poorer countries on reforestation and soil reclamation, helping them reduce their emissions.

At the national level, Canada has been slow to deploy these tools. That puts the country at a long-term competitive disadvantage.

At Copenhagen, Canada will be asked what it is prepared to do at home to cut its emissions. Some context is required. This country has cold winters and hot summers, making our electricity needs greater than many industrialized nations'. Vast distances make Canadians more dependent on transportation fuels.

A vital resource, the oil sands, are an economic advantage to Canada, indeed to North America as a whole. Sixty per cent of our natural gas is exported, and Canada is the U.S.'s largest source of crude oil. The fruits of emissions here are often enjoyed elsewhere.

This is the reality that Canada faces in its attempts to confront climate change. Canadians need not apologize for it. Canada's reality is not the same as, say, Belgium's, or that of many other developed countries.

However many drafty windows Canadians may seal or how much locally grown food they buy, this is primarily a question of government policy. So far, there has been a shortage of leadership.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has often touted Canada as a energy superpower. It's time for a new national project: to make Canada a clean-energy superpower.

Canada has a built-in advantage in two major electricity sources that showcase its geography and know-how: Canadian use of lower-carbon-emitting hydroelectric and nuclear power already surpasses that of the United States.

With long coastlines and vast prairies, Canada has much wind energy potential. Geothermal energy is a neglected area for investment. Canadian companies are working on projects in the United States, but no thermal power-generating project is yet under way in Canada.

Both sources of energy are getting cheaper, but need public support and further research to compete with oil, gas and coal. The Eco-Energy fund, which gives a one-cent-per-kilowatt hour subsidy to low-impact power projects, is popular enough that it has been almost tapped out; there is no sign yet from the federal government that new monies will be provided.

The recent economic stimulus package, which could have increased renewable-energy investment, was a missed opportunity; the U.S. spent over 50 times more on renewable energy and efficiency ($76.5-billion (U.S.)) than Canada.

New, clean, cheap technology is within reach. But if more investments are not made, other countries will get there first.

No discussion of a climate action plan for Canada can be complete without a discussion of Alberta's oil sands. Even so, the oil sands only produce 5 per cent of Canada's current greenhouse gas emissions. To treat them as an environmental curse would be disingenuous.

Yet they do contribute to the climate-change challenge facing Canada. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that oil-sands production could increase by 175 per cent as of 2025. The oil patch's growth trajectory is strong.

If Canada is to reduce overall emissions, the oil sands will have to play their part.

The industry has already gone some distance, reducing its emissions intensity (or pollution for every barrel of oil extracted). Carbon-capture and sequestration, in which carbon dioxide (from the coal- and gas-burning plants that power oil extraction) is captured and injected back into the ground, where it can help with the extraction of yet more, harder to reach, oil, has great promise but remains expensive.

The federal government and Alberta have gone "all-in" on CCS research and pilot projects. The pace will have to pick up, and industry will have to take on more of the CCS burden, perhaps in response to government regulation or more certain pricing of carbon.

New investments in other kinds of research are necessary, to reduce the energy that goes into the extraction process.

Products from the oil sands are necessary and desirable. Americans seeking reliable oil supplies understand that Canada is one of the few countries that can deliver.

The International Energy Agency reports that "Canadian oil sands have the potential to make a significantly greater contribution to global energy security for decades ahead by increasing the diversity of supply," and that production will increase from 2.1 million barrels a day in 2015 to 3.9 million barrels in 2030.

The oil sands are not and should not be on the table. They are a source of economic strength and energy security, but they need to be developed more cleanly, and they need to be complemented by innovation in clean energy.

The either/or proposition of the federal government is a failure of opportunity and of leadership. Moreover, it's a renunciation of Canadian ingenuity. Energy suppliers, of oil and renewable energy, have shown they can produce fewer emissions - if the federal government provides the right mix of incentives and disincentives.

Mr. Harper should not give the impression of being a grudging attendee at Copenhagen. Nor should he feel he must pick sides. Canada can be a leader in conventional and clean energy both. That is the hallmark of an energy superpower.

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