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Environment Minister Jim Prentice speaks to reporters outside the House of Commons after Question Period on Oct. 6, 2009.

Adrian Wyld

The Canadian government says it will be following Barack Obama's lead at next week's Copenhagen climate summit - and will propose to do no more, no less.

In a speech to a Montreal business audience Friday, Environment Minister Jim Prentice said Canada's policy for cutting greenhouse gases would be in lockstep with the United States.

He also brushed off critics of his government's climate-change positions, saying he will stick to his convictions despite international pressure at Copenhagen.

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He cited two reasons why Canada would need to twin its policies with the United States: It would "suffer economic pain for no real environmental gain" if it took a more aggressive approach, he said. On the other hand, it would face punitive measures if it did less.

"Given the integration of our two economies it is essential our targets remain in line - not more, not less," Mr. Prentice said.

"It all comes down to jobs."

But critics say such an approach could be a licence to do nothing.

While Mr. Obama has set greenhouse-gas targets, there's no guarantee he will succeed in getting Congress to approve his climate-change plans.

One international critic has even called Canada the biggest obstacle to any deal being reached in Copenhagen.

Mr. Prentice said that's not true.

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"Canada wants to achieve, at Copenhagen, a new agreement," he said.

"That is our policy, that is what we have been working towards for the last year. We want to be constructive at the table, we want to see an agreement - an agreement is in Canada's interests."

Mr. Prentice said leadership entails making tough decisions, especially during the difficult negotiations he's expecting in Copenhagen. He promised not to be swayed by critics at the summit.

"We refuse to repeat the mistakes of the past," he said, in a clear reference to Canada's past acceptance of tougher targets in the Kyoto accord.

"That is why it's imperative that we not rush into a deal just for the sake of saying we've taken action. There's always a lot of hype and drama that gets built into this sort of international event, much of it intended to force the hand of participants.

"We aren't going to buy into that. We are not going to panic."

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Mr. Prentice said leadership means taking a stand - popular or otherwise.

But Matthew Bramley, a climate-change policy expert with the Pembina Institute, said that seeking to harmonize with the U.S. is the opposite of leadership. He calls it "followership."

"There's no economic case for slavishly following every detail of U. S. policy on climate change," Mr. Bramley said in an interview.

Mr. Bramley also disagrees with the Environment Minister's argument that Canadian jobs are at stake. He said economic studies demonstrate Canada could set ambitious targets while creating new jobs.

Several Canadian provinces have actually reduced emissions, environmentalists note, while their economies prospered in recent years.

"I think it's quite misleading and disappointing that the minister insinuates that there's a threat to jobs from taking action on climate change - it's just not true," Mr. Bramley said.

One of Ottawa's biggest critics at the summit could wind up being the premier of Quebec. Jean Charest is proposing the toughest greenhouse gas emissions targets in the country, pledging to cut 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

That's far more than Ottawa's proposed 20-per-cent cut from 2006 levels. Mr. Charest plans to be in Copenhagen to promote his province's more aggressive emissions goals.

Mr. Charest has also publicly urged the Harper government to be a leader in the climate talks - not a follower. Such remarks set the stage for a possible intra-Canadian quarrel on the international stage.

In Ottawa, the Opposition also dismissed warnings of economic catastrophe caused by action on climate change.

The Liberals say the government is merely scrambling to find a position, now that an international consensus is forcing it to act.

"If you take eight of the top ten provinces you see that their average reductions are 14 per cent below 1990 levels - about five times in excess of what the federal government's plan is today," said Liberal environment critic David McGuinty.

"So we have a patchwork of responses. The minister is now in trouble. He's in damage control."

Mr. Prentice leaves for Copenhagen in a week.

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