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Environment Minister Peter Kent attends the opening ceremony Tuesday of the ministerial stage of the two-week, 194-nation conference on climate change in Durban, South Africa. (SCHALK VAN ZUYDAM/AP/SCHALK VAN ZUYDAM/AP)
Environment Minister Peter Kent attends the opening ceremony Tuesday of the ministerial stage of the two-week, 194-nation conference on climate change in Durban, South Africa. (SCHALK VAN ZUYDAM/AP/SCHALK VAN ZUYDAM/AP)

Low profile in Durban relegates Canada to margins of climate debate Add to ...

Wander through the underground parking garage where dozens of countries have their offices at the Durban climate summit, and you’ll find the doors open and the delegates friendly – except when you reach the Canadian government office. There the door is closed and a sign says: “Authorized personnel only.”

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While other countries have set up pavilions and exhibitions in Durban to promote their climate policies, Canada is missing in action. Other countries, even heavy polluters such as China and the United States, are organizing panels and speaking daily to the world’s media at the conference. Canada is nearly invisible, except for a tightly restricted briefing to a handful of Canadian media in a small hotel room, more than a kilometre from the conference site, where Environment Minister Peter Kent issues his daily statements.

Members of Parliament at the Durban summit, including Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and deputy NDP environment critic Laurin Liu, have been barred from Mr. Kent’s daily briefings. They were also refused accreditation in Canada’s delegation at Durban, forcing them to seek accreditation from other countries, such as Papua New Guinea.

It’s all part of the Harper government’s policy of tight control of its message. But in an era where Canada is seen as an environmental pariah, and when there is global controversy over Canada’s heavily polluting oil sands, it means that Canada is relegated to the margins of the Durban debate, leaving the field to its critics. And the critics are vocal – not just environmental activists, but also diplomats and negotiators from other countries. Even China has criticized Canada, complaining that it is setting a bad example with its reported plan to pull out of the Kyoto treaty.

Canada has tried to promote the oil sands as the “ethical oil” option. But it cannot make that argument if it is silent. And while other countries have pavilions and video messages, Canada and its oil producers don’t even have a small booth in the Durban exhibition centre, let alone a pavilion.

Unlike the United States and other countries, Canada is making no effort at “public diplomacy” here. It has a much more visible presence at African mining conferences than it does at the Durban summit, even though Canada has a plethora of the green-technology companies that could be promoted at the summit.

Canada’s invisibility at the summit suggests that it is ashamed of its climate stand, critics say. “They’re going into hiding,” said Montreal-based environmentalist Steven Guilbeault, who has attended most UN climate negotiations for the past 15 years. “They want as little public scrutiny as possible.”

While Canada remains low profile, its reputation is taking a beating. South African leaders, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have accused Canada of abandoning the moral leadership that it took in the 1980s when it fought the apartheid system. “It’s incurring diplomatic damage that will take years to repair,” said Radoslav Dimitrov, a Canadian professor and member of the European Union delegation at Durban.

By keeping a low profile and sticking stubbornly to its opposition to Kyoto, Canada is becoming irrelevant at the talks, Mr. Dimitrov said. “We’re sidelined, and they don’t take us seriously any more. Many countries have stopped perceiving Canada as a negotiating partner. In European Union meetings, we don’t even mention Canada any more.”

Canada was subjected to more bad publicity on Tuesday in the latest index of climate-change performance, released by a German environmental group. It showed that Canada is ranked 54th out of 61 countries in the index on carbon emissions and climate policies.

Canada’s reported plan to withdraw from Kyoto has provoked anxiety at the Durban summit, sparking fears that a Canadian withdrawal would cast a dark shadow over the negotiations. Mr. Kent was obliged to give a promise to the United Nations that his government won’t pull out of the Kyoto climate treaty during the final days of the Durban conference – although he refused to deny that Canada might announce a pullout when Durban is over.

Mr. Kent said he made the promise in a meeting on Monday with the UN’s chief climate negotiator, Christiana Figueres.

“The guarantee that I gave her was that there would be no unfortunate surprises during COP-17 and that we were here to continue in good faith our work towards a new international climate regime which will include all the major emitters,” Mr. Kent told reporters in Durban on Tuesday.

Asked whether Canada might announce a withdrawal from Kyoto shortly after the end of the Durban talks, he did not confirm or deny the possibility.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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