Hope is vanishing that a historic deal to address climate change can be concluded in Copenhagen, and Environment Minister Jim Prentice says the best chance is for a political agreement that would pave the way for a treaty to be signed later.
But Canada will continue to insist that it should have a less aggressive target for emission reductions than Europe or Japan because of its faster-growing population and energy-intensive industrial structure, Mr. Prentice said in an interview Thursday.
Canadians must also recognize that any national emissions cap has to reflect differing conditions across the country so as not to punish high-growth provinces, he added. The minister has been consulting with provinces on a plan that would impose a cap on industrial emissions, but allow Alberta's energy-intensive, emissions-heavy oil sands to continue expanding.
"The Canadian approach has to reflect the diversity of the country and the sheer size of the country, and the very different economic characteristics and industrial structure across the country," he said in a telephone interview.
However, Ottawa will not release its detailed climate-change plan, including its proposed emissions caps on large emitters such as oil sands and power plants, until there is more clarity on how the United States intends to proceed in global climate-change talks in Copenhagen in December, and on what an international treaty would look like, the minister added.
"Copenhagen is a very significant factor in how matters will be approached continentally, and how matters will be approached domestically," he said.
The Harper government has been criticized for undermining the global talks by insisting on smaller reductions for greenhouse gases than other developed countries, by demanding that emerging economies such as China and India agree to binding caps on their emissions, and by not tabling a plan for meeting Ottawa's own targets.
Mr. Prentice insisted Canada remains committed to reaching an agreement but was not hopeful it could be concluded by December.
"I have to take a realistic view that, given the amount of work that remains to be done, we're running out of time," he said.
Top United Nations officials are expressing similar pessimism. Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, said Thursday it is "unrealistic" to expect a treaty to be negotiated in the weeks before Copenhagen.
In New Delhi, Indian and Chinese environment ministers agreed to a common stand, rejecting binding limits on emissions but pledging to reduce the rate of growth of emissions.
On Wednesday, John Podesta, a prominent Democratic adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, told an Ottawa audience that it is doubtful a treaty will be signed in Copenhagen, but that there may be an overarching political accord that would pave the way for a treaty.
Mr. Obama is battling to get climate-change legislation through Congress before Copenhagen to strengthen his negotiating hand, but that too appears unlikely. The President plans to travel to China and host India's Prime Minister next month in hopes of finding common ground that would allow the two Asian giants to accept binding limits tied to their need for growth. Without some commitment from the emerging economies, Mr. Obama will have a much tougher job winning passage of the bill now before the Senate.
In Canada, environmentalists and federal opposition parties have slammed the Conservative government for adopting an emission target that falls well short of the country's commitment under the Kyoto Protocol, and far short of what many other developed countries are doing.
Ottawa proposes to reduce emissions by 20 per cent from 2006 levels by 2020. If achieved, Canadian emissions would be 3 per cent below 1990 levels; under Kyoto, Canada committed to cutting its greenhouse gases by 6 per cent from 1990 levels by 2012.
The European Union has said it would reduce emissions by 30 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020, if other developed countries would accept similar reductions. The U.S. climate legislation sets a target of a 17-per-cent reduction from 2005 levels by 2020, but is more aggressive than Canada's in subsequent years.
But Ottawa's chief climate negotiator, Michael Martin, said Canada's economic and population growth over the last 20 years was much stronger than EU growth, meaning Canadians would pay a higher cost to meet the same emissions targets.
The government's 2020 target represents a 26-per-cent reduction from 1990 emission levels on a per-capita basis, after adjusting for population growth.
Mr. Martin addressed a parliamentary committee which is studying a New Democratic Party bill that would commit Canada to reduce emissions by 25 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020, a target that is consistent with both Kyoto and the EU's approach for the next round.
However, the climate ambassador said Canada's targets are "comparable" to more aggressive ones because they will be just as costly to achieve.
Liberal environment critic David McGuinty said the Harper government is avoiding responsibility for addressing climate change, both globally and domestically.
"We're negotiating without a plan" to achieve the reductions Ottawa has already committed to, he said. "They're ragging the puck, killing time and hoping to avoid the issue until after the next election."