Canada's deep divisions over climate change will be on display in Copenhagen, as Ontario and Quebec intend to lobby Ottawa from the summit's sidelines to accept more ambitious emission targets.
However, while the federal government faces criticism at home and abroad, the Paris-based International Energy Agency that advises rich countries says Ottawa's 2020 target for emission reductions is consistent with a robust global plan to minimize damage from climate change.
In advance of the climate summit that begins Monday in the Danish capital, the Harper government has committed to reducing Canada's greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 per cent from 2006 levels by 2020, but has not laid out its policies for achieving that goal.
"Canada's position needs to be much more ambitious," Ontario Environment Minister John Gerretsen said in an interview Thursday.
The Ontario minister said there are concerns that Ottawa will impose an unfair burden on his province and Quebec in reducing emissions while giving the oil-sands sector essentially a free pass.
Provincial representatives, including Quebec Premier Jean Charest, his B.C. counterpart, Gordon Campbell, Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner and Mr. Gerretsen, plan to attend the Copenhagen summit as part of the Canadian delegation. Mr. Gerretsen said officials from Ontario and Quebec are working closely and will make it clear that Ottawa is not telling the whole Canadian story - that several provinces are committed to much deeper cuts than the Harper government has agreed to.
"We're going to pressure our national government to come up with bigger targets and to explain to those jurisdictions that don't think we're doing enough in Canada that there are jurisdictions at the sub-national levels that are doing some pretty interesting work."
Quebec has recently committed to cut emissions by 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020; Ontario has set a target of 15 per cent below 1990 levels, and B.C. has set a 14-per-cent target. Alberta, in contrast, would see emissions rise to 58 per cent above 1990 levels by 2020. Ottawa's target would lower emissions to 3 per cent below 1990 levels - well short of the commitment for 2012 made by the previous Liberal government under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice yesterday defended the government's stand, saying it is comparable to targets proposed by the United States. And he suggested Europe's nominally more ambitious cuts from 1990 levels are largely the result of slow growth and de-industrialization in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism.
The Harper government got some support for its argument from International Energy Agency director Nobuo Tanaka, who is visiting Ottawa this week. The IEA has issued a report calling for massive investment in clean-energy technologies as part of a global effort to prevent catastrophic global warming.
In an interview, Mr. Tanaka said the fruits of that investment will largely occur after 2020 as rising carbon prices and government regulations stimulate the development of low-carbon alternatives, both in terms of production and consumption of energy.
The IEA has devised its own models for what it would take to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. Under that scenario, which stabilizes global emissions by 2020, Canada would have to reduce them by 16 per cent from 2006 levels.
"If Canada is aiming at this 20 per cent, that certainly overshoots our projection," said Mr. Tanaka, who conceded many climate scientists argue that more aggressive early action is required.
"So this is a very important contribution that Canada would make if they achieve this 20-per-cent target."
Rick Smith, executive director with Toronto-based Environmental Defence, said the IEA is out of step with the vast majority of climate experts, who worry that failure to act more aggressively will result in a series of irreversible chain-reactions, including melting ice caps and glaciers and warming oceans.
Mr. Smith said the planned actions by Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia would essentially allow Ottawa to meet its national emission targets, leaving the other provinces largely off the hook.
If those other provinces cut their emissions to 3 per cent below 1990 levels, Canada would achieve an 11-per-cent reduction from that base year by 2020, he said.
Mr. Gerretsen said Canada could clearly achieve greater progress than the federal government has committed to, particularly if there was a political will to rein in emissions from the oil-sands sector.
"Our biggest fear is that the feds may try to use the good work that's been done by us as part of their overall goal and thereby allow the tar-sands development to proceed without hesitation," he said.
But Bill Rodgers, a spokesman for Mr. Prentice, said no sector will be given special treatment, and that critics should hold their fire until they see the federal plan.
"All the sectors and provinces will be treated equally," he said. "Everybody has got to share the burden equally."