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Report on Business UN climate summit aims for progress amid backlash on carbon taxes

Smoke billows from the chimneys at Lethabo Power Station, a coal fired power station, in Vereeniging, South Africa, on Dec. 5, 2018.

Themba Hadebe/The Associated Press

Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna landed in Poland on Sunday with the goal of speeding up the global transition to a low-carbon global economy, while at home the federal government faces growing provincial opposition that will make it harder to achieve Canada’s own climate change targets.

At the annual United Nations climate change summit, Ms. McKenna and her international colleagues are trying to finalize the operating rules of the Paris agreement, the 2015 treaty in which 195 countries pledged to work to avert the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

Under the accord, Canada has committed to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. In an interview before leaving for Paris, Ms. McKenna indicated the country will increase that ambition, though Ottawa’s most recent assessment suggests current policies will leave the country some 66-megatonnes above the 517-megatonne target in 2030.

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Meanwhile, the political climate has gotten a lot hotter since 2015, both in Canada and internationally.

U.S. President Donald Trump is encouraging fossil-fuel production and use and gutting existing climate policies, while French President Emmanuel Macron was forced last week to roll back a hike in fuel taxes after it sparked violent protests. On Sunday, major oil-exporting countries prevented the summit from “welcoming” a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that warned of drastic consequences if the world does not limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5 C.

In an interview in her Parliament Hill office, Ms. McKenna said French protests holds a clear lesson for governments as they adopt carbon pricing and other measures designed to reduce fossil-fuel consumption by encouraging conservation and the use of low-carbon energy sources.

“What it does is emphasize that when you develop policies you need to make sure you are also considering people and that life is affordable,” the minister said. She noted the federal carbon tax – which will apply in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick, four provinces that do not have their own broad-based levy – will return 90 per cent of revenue raised to households in those provinces.

At home, Ontario, Manitoba and New Brunswick have killed carbon-pricing plans that were in place in the former case or were being planned by the latter two provinces. Alberta has cancelled future increases in its carbon tax over the failure to complete oil sands pipelines that would open new markets and increase prices for western Canadian crude. Alberta’s United Progressive Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney – who is leading in polls heading into a spring election – vows to end that province’s carbon tax and the emission-reductions plans it funds.

Even as some provinces backtrack, Ms. McKenna is promising to increase the country’s ambition for emission cuts in 2020, as called for under the Paris agreement.

“The Paris agreement provides for ratcheting up ambition,” she said. “This is a conversation we need to have. We’re all in this together.”

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Environmental groups who were in Poland last week applauded when Ms. McKenna said Canada would increase its ambition, though it is not clear how the country will meet its existing commitments.

The Environment Minister likes to focus on the economic opportunities in the global adoption of low-carbon technology. She acknowledges, however, the transition is difficult for Alberta and indeed for Canada with its large resource sector.

In Alberta, the failure to get new pipelines constructed has deepened opposition to climate policies that would impose any cost on industry or households. Labelling the Paris accord a “futility,” former Alberta treasurer Ted Morton wrote in The Globe and Mail last week that Canada must essentially match the United States’s environmental policies or risk losing investment to its southern neighbour.

The rising opposition to the Paris deal increases the stakes for Ms. McKenna and her international colleagues this week in Poland.

Their aim is to deliver a workable, credible set of rules and procedures under which countries will work together to achieve the goal of limiting the average increase in global temperatures to well below 2 C. Even that amount of warming will cause major threats to the environment, to vulnerable species and to the health and well-being of millions, perhaps billions, of people, the IPCC warned.

Among the most contentious issues is whether emerging powers such as China, India and South Africa must meet the same standards for transparency and accountability in their climate plans as developed countries, and how to build a global market that would allow for trading in greenhouse-gas credits while ensuring the emissions reductions that they represent are real.

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On the sidelines of the negotiations, Ms. McKenna will work with her British counterpart, Claire Perry, on an international effort to phase out coal-fired electricity or ensure such plants capture the carbon dioxide they would emit into the atmosphere.

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