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Politics Wynne says Canada’s ‘future prosperity’ depends on emissions cuts

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne arrives to speak at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington, Tuesday, May 19, 2015, on a variety of topics including the Pan Am Games to be held this July in Toronto.

Andrew Harnik/AP

With the greenest speech a Canadian politician has delivered in Washington in at least a decade, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne sought Tuesday to recast the bilateral conversation as something other than wrangling over Keystone XL.

"You may be conditioned to expect a Canadian politician to come to Washington and talk mostly about the Keystone Pipeline," she said, referring to the contentious plan to funnel Alberta oil sands oil across the United States to Gulf Coast refineries. For years, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a steady stream of his ministers and successive Alberta premiers have lobbied relentlessly on behalf of TransCanada Corp.'s $8-billion pipeline.

"I'm not here to do that," Ms. Wynne said. Instead she chided politicians – without naming them – who claim that the oil patch, reeling from a dramatic drop in prices, would be wrecked if forced to curb emissions.

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In a luncheon speech to the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington public-policy think tank, Ms. Wynne called coping with climate change both a challenge and an opportunity.

Unless there are drastic cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions, we will be "putting our future prosperity at risk," she told a crowd of Canada watchers.

And instead of lambasting the Obama administration for dithering over Keystone XL – an accusation commonly voiced by visiting federal ministers in recent years – Ms. Wynne extolled President Barack Obama who has said: "No challenge – poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change."

Curbing greenhouse-gas emissions which environmentalists claim threaten to ignite global warming and imperil the planet has been a central theme of the Premier's trip to New York and Washington.

She said a huge majority north of the border agree with her. "Eighty-four per cent of Canadians think a country as wealthy and progressive as Canada has an obligation to take action against climate change," she said.

Echoing Mr. Obama's argument that action is needed now to avert grave consequences for future generations, Ms. Wynne said: "They will never forgive us, nor should we forgive ourselves, for doing nothing."

She also said extreme and unprecedented weather events, linked to global warming, posed a grave and immediate danger.

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"That's not a distant or potential threat." It is "destroying the livelihoods of the people that I serve," she said, referring to Ontario voters.

Still she insisted that growth was consistent with cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions and that new and innovative green energy technologies offered economic opportunities.

"Growth in and of itself is not our end in Ontario," she said. "Growth that only serves a small segment of society is not only the wrong choice, it is economically self-destructive [and] growth that irreversibly damages the environment and in turn, destroys the very building blocks of our health and prosperity is false growth."

In the U.S., where more than 40 per cent of the electricity that lights American homes and powers its factories comes from coal, Ms. Wynne was unabashed in boasting that Ontario has closed down its last coal-fired generating station last year. "I knew that coal-fired power in our electrical grid was contributing to climate change," she said, adding that shuttering the province's coal-fired plants was the North American "continent's biggest step in the fight against climate change."

"Our kids are literally able to breathe easier."

But the Premier was careful not to reject all hydrocarbon energy development.

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Asked whether she would back the Energy East Pipeline that would give Alberta's vast, landlocked oil sands an outlet to world markets, Ms. Wynne ducked. She noted that a new government had just been elected in Alberta and she was waiting to see what it wanted.

When that happens, "I hope to come forward with a really coherent position," she said.

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