Canada is on a collision course with the world's emerging powers at climate change talks in Cancun, with the Harper government insisting that any agreement must bind China, India and other larger countries to emission targets that can be independently verified.
In an interview Thursday, Environment Minister John Baird said it is time to end the special treatment accorded to developing countries under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol so that sacrifices made by rich countries don't get swamped by rising emissions and tougher competition from rapidly industrializing countries.
Mr. Baird will travel next Tuesday to Cancun, where nearly 190 countries are attempting to reach a series of agreements that will provide building blocks to an eventual international treaty to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.
Developing countries, led by giants like China, India and Brazil, are insisting that the United Nations-sponsored talks produce a successor treaty to the Kyoto accord, in which developed countries agreed to make absolute and verifiable emission reductions while poorer nations pledged to make best efforts to reduce the growth rate of greenhouse gas emissions.
Canada and the United States want a new treaty that would impose greater obligations on the richer developing countries and require monitoring and verification to ensure they are doing what they pledge to do, though Canada has been most adamant that those countries make binding commitments on emission targets.
"At these meetings there is always a lot of discussion about why other people have to do things," Mr. Baird said. "Canada's position is that we believe everyone has to do something. We believe we need everyone in the boat, everyone with an oar in the water and everyone paddling together. Some people's paddles could be bigger or smaller but we all have to be going in the same direction."
Canada has been widely condemned by environmental activists for its role at international talks, which they say often appears aimed more at exploiting divisions than finding compromise. But Mr. Baird said Ottawa wants to ensure that any deal is both fair and effective.
He said that, under a Kyoto-like agreement, Canadian companies would be at a competitive disadvantage with firms based in countries that have not made a binding commitment while global emissions would still be on a unsustainable path. "We can reduce emissions by closing down a steel mill in Canada but if we're just buying the steel from a company in China, what do you say to the steel worker in Canada?" he said.
The minister referred to a recent controversy over United Emirates' demand for landing rights in Canada to illustrate the government's concern about competitiveness. "If Air Canada has to reduce its emissions, why shouldn't Emirates Air? It's a luxury airline. Whether a Canadian is travelling on Air Canada or Emirates Air, it is still the same impact."
The Cancun meeting is shaping up as a battle between industrialized countries and the rapidly developing ones, with the poorest and most vulnerable worried that the entire process will break down, leaving them to cope with weather-related ravages of climate change.
Developed countries are facing demands for even greater emission reductions than they have pledged to date, and for hundreds of billions of dollars in payments, through a United Nations agency, to help the developing world reduce emissions and adapt to the looming impacts, which scientists say are already being felt.
But United States and European Union countries are still mired in a recession and a massive debt crisis, and will find it difficult politically to agree to any deal that imposes few obligations on its growing economic competitors while promising massive transfers from their already debt-swollen treasuries.
Steven Guilbeault, deputy director with Montreal-based environmental group, Equiterre, said the Harper government is eager to walk away from Kyoto because it is embarrassed by Canada's failure to meet the targets, and because any agreement built on Kyoto principles would impose penalties on Canada for that shortfall.
Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner will also be travelling to Cancun, in part to defend his province's resource industry, and in part to back Mr. Baird's call for a more encompassing agreement.
"I will advocate for an international agreement that is comprehensive, fair, achievable and above all transparent," Mr. Renner said in Edmonton. "It must cover all major emitters."
With a report from Josh Wingrove in Edmonton