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Prime Minister Stephen Harper leaves Ottawa on Thursday, November 26, 2009, for Port of Spain to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

Sean Kilpatrick

With the Chinese and the Americans leaving him no choice, Stephen Harper reversed himself Thursday and announced he would, after all, attend next month's meetings on climate change in Copenhagen.

Reporters frantically phoned and texted the news from the Prime Minister's aircraft as it taxied for takeoff en route to a Commonwealth heads-of-government meeting in Trinidad, reflecting the reluctant, impromptu nature of the decision.

Earlier Thursday, China released its own targets to reduce global warming, accompanied by word that Premier Wen Jiabao would attend the summit.

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Since U.S. President Barack Obama had already announced his intention Wednesday to visit Copenhagen, Mr. Harper was left with no choice but to either fly to Denmark or appear to be boycotting a forum attended by most of the world's leaders.

"He's indicated that he would like to go and I think that's fabulous," Environment Minister Jim Prentice told reporters yesterday. He said that Mr. Harper "indicated a number of weeks ago that he was considering going to Copenhagen, that he would wait to see who else was going to go and whether there would be a critical mass of leaders attending the leaders' summit."

In fact, what the Prime Minister's advisers indicated at the Asia-Pacific summit in Singapore earlier this month was that it was unlikely the Prime Minister would attend, since a firm agreement appeared doubtful.

However, there has been a surprising amount of progress in the intervening days, as nations around the world declared their specific commitments to reduce emissions.

In one respect, Mr. Harper's reversal is both embarrassing and politically compromising, forcing him to devote time and political capital on an issue the Conservatives prefer to avoid confronting, since any meaningful effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions threatens to constrain development of Alberta's oil sands.

But in other respects, the runup to Copenhagen is breaking the Conservative government's way. Mr. Obama's pledge to reduce American emissions 17 per cent below 2005 levels - a modest goal, but one that will still be difficult to get through Congress - is virtually identical to Ottawa's target of 20-per-cent reductions below 2006 levels.

China's commitment to reduce the intensity of emissions - even as the economy continues to grow - by up to 45 per cent by 2020, is more modest still, since emissions would actually increase over that time. But even this tentative first step is progress, considering China's previous refusal to take any action at all to fight global warming.

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The Conservative government's targets thus dovetail nicely with those of the two biggest emitting nations.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's climate-change plan, which he unveiled Thursday, sets the baseline for reductions at 1990 levels, though it mysteriously fails to declare what the level below that baseline would be, leaving the official opposition's targets both more ambitious and more vague than the government's.

"How can we possibly have a target when the government's got no plan?" Liberal Environment critic David McGuinty explained Thursday to reporters. "We have no access to the information. We have no idea what the state of the economy's going to be. We have no idea what the state of the environment's going to be.

"But when you have this kind of regime in town, four years now and counting, and still have no credible plan to take to the biggest international negotiations in decades, it's a problem. It's a real problem."

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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