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Politics Canada sticks to its line on the oil sands at UN climate summit

Syncrude’s oil sands upgrader north of Fort McMurray, Alta in an aerial photograph Aug. 31, 2010.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq heads to the United Nations climate summit this weekend with no new targets and no commitment to action on Canada's fastest growing source of greenhouse gases in the oil sands, but with a pledge to crack down on a little-known chemical that represents a tiny portion of this country's emissions.

Ms. Aglukkaq will join global environment ministers in Lima next week as negotiators attempt to reach a draft agreement that would commit countries to aggressive action on climate change, and provide poorer countries with assistance to reduce emissions and adapt to the punishing weather conditions of a warming planet.

On Friday, the minister announced that Ottawa will enact new regulations to control hydrofluorocarbons, which are used in air conditioning and heating. The powerful short-term greenhouse gases account for only 1 per cent of Canada's overall emissions. But she reiterated that Ottawa will not move to regulate emissions from the oil sands until the United States is ready to address its oil industry – a decision that, according to many analysts, makes it virtually impossible for Canada to hit its 2020 target.

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While the United States, China and the European Union have announced new emissions targets, the Canadian government faces mounting skepticism about its commitment to meet 2020 targets, and is a long way from announcing its goals for 2025 or 2030.

"What I can say now is that it is too early to give a definitive date and target timelines," Ms. Aglukkaq said in an interview. "It is important to remember that Canada's targets are national which means the provinces and territories will have to play a role in that." She has convened a federal-provincial-territorial meeting for late February to discuss new post-2020 goals, though the United Nations has asked all countries to submit their targets by the end of March.

The Conservative government insists it is committed to climate action. On Friday, Ms. Aglukkaq highlighted past measures, including a 2012 rule to eventually phase out traditional coal-fired power, and new fuel mileage standards for automobiles that were essentially set by Washington and agreed to by Ottawa.

"We have taken decisive action," she said. "We were the first country in the world to ban traditional coal-fired electricity. Our record speaks for itself: we have reduced emissions in Canada without affecting the economy."

But she carries to Lima the perception of a government that is a laggard – one that is more interested in promoting exports of a high-carbon source of crude oil than in pursuing a national plan to reduce emissions.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this week challenged Canada to show leadership on climate change in its role as a G7 nation. In an interview with the CBC, he urged Ottawa "to become ambitious and visionary for the global future of people and the planet."

NDP MP Peter Julian said Ottawa should be in a position to put forward ambitious post-2020 targets.

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"It shows shows the lack of seriousness of the Canadian government," he said. "She is basically going to Lima empty-handed."

Ms. Aglukkaq rejected that characterization.

"Our government will continue to work constructively with our international partners to establish a fair and effective international agreement that includes all major emitters and we remain committed to that," she said.

The Environment Minister is expected highlight Canada's action on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which have been used by the cooling and heating industry since they were forced to phase out ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) several years ago.

"I would say they are showing up with another meaningless announcement," said Dale Marshall of Toronto-based Environmental Defence. "What they need to be regulating is the oil and gas sector which is the fastest growing source of emissions in the country."

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