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Climate protestors in London - Canada's international profile on climate change has steadily deteriorated. AFP/Getty ImagesLEON NEAL/AFP / Getty Images

Canada's international profile on climate change unfortunately has steadily deteriorated. The tide can be turned, but first we need to recognize how we allowed our credibility to be eroded and what we need to do about it.

In 1988, Canada was one of the world's leaders in bringing the climate-change issue to the attention of the international community. The Kyoto Protocol proved to be much more of a political challenge, with successive governments ultimately unable to launch a comprehensive plan. With the notable exception of hosting the 12th Conference of the Parties in Montreal, these governments spent too much time trying to find loopholes in the protocol, such as the ill-conceived attempt to claim credits for clean-energy exports.

Canada's reputation and credibility in the multilateral world continue to suffer as climate change has taken on greater significance internationally. We are attracting domestic and international criticism due in part to:

  • A lack of a domestic regulatory framework for large greenhouse-gas emitters;
  • A lack of complementary policies and price signals that would address the "consumption" side of Canada's emissions;
  • A desire to both retain Canada's status as a party to the Kyoto Protocol and disregard its obligations to meet its emission-reduction targets.

Either we're in, or we're out.

These factors suggest to other countries that Canada isn't serious. Actions (or more accurately inactions) on climate change have affected Canada's traditional profile as a champion of multilateralism and an effective bridge between other negotiating blocs, such as the European Union and the United States.

However, next month's climate-change talks in Copenhagen offer Canada an opportunity to demonstrate its seriousness on the issue and re-establish its reputation on multilateralism.

Despite having promised to have a plan in place for the talks, the government appears to have backed off, noting that it would be difficult to institute a plan until there is a more coherent understanding of how the United States and the rest of the world intend to manage their greenhouse-gas emissions. However, not going to Copenhagen with a clearer plan runs the risk that Canada will be irrelevant in the negotiations.

The apparent recognition that the talks will deliver a political treaty, rather than a full technical one, may have bought the government some time. A wise use of that time would see improvements in three key areas: domestically, with the U.S. and internationally.

First, the government could begin a dialogue early next year on climate change and clean energy with federal, provincial and territorial governments and other critical stakeholders across the country. A transformation to a low-carbon economy will require a strong national discussion dealing with both energy-production and consumption issues.

More important, Canada will need to demonstrate a willingness to accept its responsibility to make aggressive emission reductions, covering all aspects of Canadian society. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's persistent focus on the responsibilities of developing countries, while never acknowledging that developed countries are accountable for 75 per cent of current greenhouse-gas emissions in the atmosphere, only works to confirm suspicions (accurate or otherwise) that his true intention in the negotiations is to derail the process.

In relations with the United States, Canada will need to focus more on clean-energy opportunities, including linking up with the U.S. emission-trading systems and not spending all of its political capital and attention on the oil sands.

In relations with developing countries, a greater coherence between Canada's bilateral aid agenda and the climate-change talks could help its profile and influence in multilateral negotiations. It should give high priority to bilateral "signature" projects that can be identified with Canada.

These shifts would be important signals that Canada takes its international reputation seriously, particularly as it prepares to host the upcoming G8 and G20 summits. Climate change will be a major agenda item at these meetings.

The government will have a wide range of opportunities to use foreign policy as way to influence climate-change decisions. Acting on them in a co-ordinated and coherent manner can help Canada re-establish its reputation.