The Harper government is hedging on its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, saying the actual Canadian goal will depend the level of ambition adopted by the United States.
In an interview Wednesday, Environment Minister Jim Prentice said the government's overwhelming priority is harmonizing its regulatory approach with that of the U.S. - including the targets for emissions reduction.
Mr. Prentice acknowledged that there are considerable questions about how Washington will proceed on climate change, which means a delay in Ottawa's plan to impose emission regulations on industries such as Alberta's oil sands.
"We are committed to harmonization with the United States on our climate change plans," the minister said in his Parliament Hill office.
"By definition, that means we will want to see our targets and the American targets equated, we want to see our base years equated, and we condition our position [on targets]as requiring commensurate U.S. effort."
Under an agreement reached last month in Copenhagen, countries are scheduled to submit their climate-change plans to the United Nations by the end of this month - a deadline that Canada will meet.
Mr. Prentice wouldn't reveal precisely what Ottawa's submission will say, but it is expected to commit Canada to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent from 2006 levels by 2020, subject to the U.S. adopting roughly equivalent targets.
In Copenhagen, U.S. negotiators pointed to legislation passed by the House of Representatives to cut emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. However, prospects for getting similar legislation through the Senate have dimmed as President Barack Obama and the Democrats are being forced to focus more intensely on the economy and jobs.
In the absence of cap-and-trade legislation, the Obama administration will likely use the Environmental Protection Agency to set limits on individual power plants, refineries and other industrial emitters. And Mr. Prentice said yesterday that Ottawa is prepared to pursue a similar regulatory approach.
"We have indicated a willingness to proceed with a North American cap-and-trade system; we've also indicated a willingness to proceed by way of a harmonized regulatory system," he said. "But the United States government is going to have to make a choice."
The minister insists Ottawa is not simply awaiting a U.S. decision, but is working with the Americans to set new emissions standards for planes, ships and trucks, having already toughened rules for passenger vehicles.
Dale Marshall, a policy analyst for the David Suzuki Foundation, said the delay in capping industrial emissions means Canada stands little chance of meeting Ottawa's emissions targets.
"They don't want to do anything, they're not going to do anything, and they'll use a multitude of excuses why they are not doing anything," Mr. Marshall said.
He noted that Ottawa is delaying regulation as Alberta's oil industry rebounds from a year-long hiatus and has announced several new oil sands projects, the fastest growing source of industrial emissions in the county.
"At least a part of the reason, and probably a significant part of the reason that we haven't seen anything [on regulations]is that we know the oil sands will be the major political obstacle, but also the major challenge in terms of growth of emissions over the next decade," he said.
A poll from the Washington-based Pew Center suggests that Americans place addressing climate change far below the economy, jobs, terrorism and health care.
And with his own slide in the polls, Mr. Obama has little political capital for getting a costly cap-and-trade bill through Congress.
However, the EPA and many states are moving ahead with regulations, said Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. And, eventually, he added, Mr. Obama will use this to argue that Congress should pass legislation.