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Between its carbon pricing carve-out and clashes with Prairie provinces, the Trudeau government has had a bad year on the climate file. But in Dubai, there’s a chance to turn those missteps into progress

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People talk on Nov. 30 at the Al Wasl Dome in Dubai, host city of the COP28 climate-change conference.Rafiq Maqbool/The Associated Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is limping into COP28, the pillars of its climate-change strategy wobbling, as public support turns against it.

But that bitter recent experience – and accompanying hard lessons about the challenges of maintaining climate momentum through turbulent economic and political circumstances – may be the most valuable thing that Ottawa brings to the annual United Nations climate conference, which begins on Thursday in Dubai.

At other recent editions of the two-week summit, Canada has presented itself as a policy innovator – particularly around carbon pricing, which Mr. Trudeau challenged other countries to adopt. And it has tried to point to itself as proof that countries with large fossil-fuel industries can lead the transition toward a more sustainable economy, rather than resisting or reluctantly going along with it.

Based on an interview with Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, before he headed to the United Arab Emirates to lead Canada’s delegation, there will still be efforts along those lines.

Mr. Guilbeault said he expects to release draft regulations to reduce methane leaks from the oil-and-gas sector before the end of the conference. He’s also hoping to release a proposed framework for the government’s long-promised cap on that industry’s greenhouse-gas emissions, which is more controversial, around the same time, and reiterated that will at least happen by the end of the year.

He clearly intends to talk up both as evidence of Canada leading by example. That hasn’t always been an easy sell, as Canada has never been on pace to meet its national emissions-reduction targets, including a 40-per-cent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030.

But the positive spin may ring hollower than usual this time, after a string of domestic setbacks that Mr. Guilbeault acknowledged has added up to a challenging fall.

Among them has been Ottawa opening the door to a dismantling of its carbon-pricing system by providing carve-outs for Atlantic Canada; a finding by the Supreme Court that the government’s environmental-assessment law for major fossil-fuel and other energy projects is unconstitutional; and mounting hostilities with emboldened governments of oil-producing provinces. (Fittingly, the governments of both Alberta and Saskatchewan plan to have a significant presence at COP28, where they will be delivering messages that are more fossil-fuel friendly than Ottawa’s.)

Meanwhile, with last week’s Fall Economic Statement, Ottawa signalled a shift away from layering on new policy commitments to attract low-carbon investments. And environmental advocates are frustrated by the slow implementation of promises made over the past several years, the oil-and-gas emissions cap included.

That’s happening under the shadow of public anxiety around affordability concerns, which has Mr. Trudeau’s government shifting focus as it tries to avoid losing power to an Official Opposition that would scrap much of the existing federal climate-policy framework and has yet to put forward one of its own.

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COP28 will be held at Dubai's Expo City from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12.Peter Dejong/The Associated Press

Acknowledging these signs of wavering national resolve at COP28 is not something Mr. Guilbeault or other Canadian officials will be eager to do, because that’s not normally how the event works.

Typically, while countries negotiate toward largely toothless international agreements that set targets and standards for emissions reductions, they play up their domestic accomplishments to the tens of thousands of attendees – environmental activists, industrial lobbyists, bankers, celebrities – at the sprawling tradeshow-like event surrounding the formal talks.

It’s largely intended to create a sense of momentum, and enough peer pressure to send everyone home energized to do their part to save the planet.

But there is a common assessment among veterans of the summit that it needs to evolve to better address the real-world challenges of implementing the lofty goals that it sets.

And some willingness on the part of Canada to be frank with other delegations about the obstacles it’s running into could help answer demand for what Catherine Abreu, a high-profile Canadian climate activist who sits on the board of the federally appointed Net-Zero Advisory Body, called “a COP of reckoning and honesty.”

That reckoning could take many forms, including with the very nature of the event itself, because of controversy around it being hosted by Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, a politician who serves as CEO of the UAE’s national oil company.

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Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber is the COP28 president.R. SATISH BABU/AFP via Getty Images

In terms of the substance of the negotiations, one of the central tensions of COP28 will be whether it can make good on a broad promise reached at last year’s COP27 to provide “loss and damage” funding from rich countries primarily responsible for global emissions to date, to poorer ones disproportionately bearing the brunt of climate-change consequences.

But the reckoning also refers to frustration with the pace of decarbonization in heavy-emitting countries. Even with significant cause for optimism in the rapid scale-up of clean technologies – from electric vehicles and heat pumps, to renewable electricity and energy storage, to new industrial processes – that uptake is not happening quickly enough to contain planetary warming to under 2 degrees Celsius, the target to minimize environmental disaster set under the 2015 Paris Agreement. (Keeping warming under 1.5 degrees, which was the Paris Agreement’s preferred goal, is now a remote prospect.)

Officially, the way that COP28 will address that imperative is through a Global Stocktake, which means acknowledging the extent to which current emissions-reduction efforts are falling short, then trying to negotiate shared energy-transition targets to close the gap.

Up for debate is whether shared commitments to phase out fossil fuels in the coming decades, and triple renewable energy capacity by 2030, make it into the conference’s closing text.

What the formal negotiations can’t address, but could be a topic of more informal discussions, is how to maintain steady focus between now and mid-century to domestically implement and maintain all the underlying polices required to achieve those targets. That means putting in place combinations of regulations and incentives that are stable and predictable enough to shape long-term investments.

Canada should have a lot to offer in such conversations, because it is acutely encountering a fundamental challenge to climate-policy consistency that any democratic country will face at some point.

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Wildfires rage near Kelowna this past August, when extreme heat brought renewed interest in the climate crisis.Shawn Talbot/The Globe and Mail

The hard reality, which often gets papered over at COP, is that climate change, while an existential crisis for the planet, is only the top domestic political issue at times when it is being most acutely experienced through events such as extreme heat, wildfires and flooding, or when little else is happening.

Sometimes, it can easily align with whatever has supplanted it atop the agenda – as when, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada and many other countries tried to use green stimulus funds to build back better. Other times, it can tilt either way – as when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparked a global energy crunch, and Canada entered a debate about whether it should be aiming to get more fossil fuels to market, or developing more sustainable exports such as green hydrogen.

And then there are instances such as the current one, when the existing climate agenda – especially carbon pricing, and to some extent even subsidies to compete internationally for investment and jobs – are seen as contributing to the affordability crisis that Canadians demand their governments address.

Mr. Guilbeault framed the advancement of ambitious climate policies in such situations as a test that governments need to meet. “I suppose that true leadership is being able to do that when you’re faced with competing priorities, or a lot of headwind,” he said. “Despite the fact that it may not be the flavour of the day, we need to continue being able to move forward.”

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Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault will represent Canada at COP28.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

But the fact Ottawa is currently scaling back some of its existing policies in response to public backlash – and the strong chance of a different party soon winning office with promises to scrap many more of them – suggest that the measures enacted to date are not as durable as they need to be.

That’s not necessarily a source of shame for a government that has tried to break lots of new policy ground while taking climate change much more seriously than its predecessors. In an interview specifically about the plight of Canada’s carbon-pricing system, which is a different model than any other country has used, Chris Bataille, a Canadian policy expert who is a research fellow at the Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy, suggested that “the worst it’s been is an extremely valuable experiment.”

Experiments are only valuable, though, if lessons are drawn from them. And there are various ones that Mr. Guilbeault could bring with him to Dubai.

One of them, suggested by Canadian Climate Institute president Rick Smith, is to not over-rely on any one measure, lest the entire climate strategy collapse if it’s less effective than expected or scrapped altogether. Although Ottawa has been criticized by some in industry for layering on too many different policies, that arguably has created more certainty around decarbonization being rewarded than if the government had counted on carbon pricing to do all the heavy lifting, as some economists had hoped.

As for how to improve the durability of each policy component, another takeaway is that policies need to provide benefits in people’s day-to-day lives – more tangibly than something such as carbon pricing – so that they’re popular enough to withstand even changes in government. That would mean, rather than stand-alone climate policies, prioritizing ways to reduce emissions while addressing other needs.

“We need a shift into all-in policymaking in Canada – baking climate policy into social or economic policy,” said Ms. Abreu. Destination Zero, the climate organization that she leads, has recently been involved in launching a new Affordability Action Council that’s aiming to find those intersections, especially around housing.

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Climate protesters rally in Ottawa on Sept. 15.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

An alternative lesson, drawn by some veterans of environmental policy, is that existing policy has placed too much onus on Canadians having to change their day-to-day lives, as opposed to a more populist approach squarely and unabashedly targeting heavy-emitting industries.

Another is to depoliticize climate policy as much as possible; to avoid it being a cudgel that parties wield against each other, by instead prioritizing relatively low-key measures that steadily churn along in the background while other issues dominate the spotlight.

None of these are silver bullets, and Mr. Guilbeault may have drawn other lessons, although he did not elaborate on them in the interview.

What he did correctly note – amid some similar signs elsewhere, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently softening or scrapping some of Britain’s climate regulations, and the prospect in the United States of President Joe Biden’s ambitious green agenda being wiped out if Donald Trump returns to office – is that Canada’s challenges are hardly unique.

“I’ve yet to meet a minister of environment or climate change around the world who’s told me, we have it all figured out, it’s all good, no problems,” he said. “It’s not happening.”

There are few better opportunities to discuss those problems, and try to identify solutions, than when officials steering climate policy for nearly every country in the world are gathered in one place for two weeks.

The biggest perceived imperative at these summits is usually to find a way to somehow get so many different governments to agree to suitably ambitious international goals. This time, perhaps there will be equal focus on how to maintain momentum after delegations return home.

Climate and COP28: More from The Globe and Mail

Rachel Parent: Young people can’t surrender the future to false promises

Alberta details new multibillion-dollar carbon capture support program

Michael Byers: Humans are destroying the only home they have. Canada can help save it by shutting down the tar sands

Gary Mason: The confounding, depressing hypocrisy of COP28

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