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The processing facility at the Suncor tar sands operations near Fort McMurray, Alberta, September 17, 2014.

Like an ice floe set adrift, Canada moved further away from other developed nations in the political fight against climate change in 2014.

Environmental critics point to November's G20 pact between China and the United States — a deal in which both countries agreed to limit 2030 greenhouse gas emissions — as evidence of Canada's outlier status on tackling this global concern.

"Internationally, 2014 was a very, very big year because we got very substantial mitigation commitments made by the European Union, China and the United States," said Debra Davidson, a professor with the University of Alberta's resource economics and environmental sociology department.

"But these steps from other countries have really left Canada quite isolated and out of excuses."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper had previously said Canada would move forward on climate change when "all major emitters" took action.

Olga Chistyakova, a senior analyst with Thomson Reuters Point Carbon, which parses data on power, gas and carbon markets, said provinces have tried to fill the national policy vacuum with their own initiatives.

"It's more of a bottom-up movement after Canada basically said they're not going to care to meet their Kyoto targets" on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Chistyakova said.

"In the absence of any federal action in Canada, the provincial governments are stepping in to put a price on carbon."

Quebec has a cap and trade system, and the first joint auction went through in November between California and Quebec, allowing both territories to trade carbon permits with one another. Alberta adopted an intensity-based carbon offset scheme and it has a technology fund fee of $15 a tonne.

Davidson said that although other provinces have shown success, such as B.C.'s revenue-neutral carbon tax plan, Canada continues to punch below its weight in bringing down emissions federally.

"Our own modest target that we set in Copenhagen was to bring emissions down to 612 megatonnes by 2020," she said. "Some analyses have looked at current policies in place at the federal and provincial levels, and combined them, and asked, 'would this allow us to achieve that target?' And the answer is 'no, not even close.'"

Thomson Reuters ESG researchers, who compile company metrics and monitor environmental, social and governance information, collected Canadian carbon emissions data for about 180 companies.

The analysis showed that while emissions decreased steadily from six million gigajoules in 2005, down to about two million gigajoules in 2012, there was a spike the following year to almost four million gigajoules.

The nearly 50-per-cent increase within a year is potentially troubling, given Canada's recently dismal record on acting against climate change.

The 2014 Climate Change Performance Index, released in October by Germanwatch and Climate Action Network Europe, ranked Canada dead last, in 58th place.

"Canada still shows no intention of moving forward with climate policy and therefore remains the worst performer of all industrialized countries," the report concluded.

Canada placed below Russia (56th place), China (46th) and the U.S. (43rd) in the annual index.

"It's [an] international embarrassment," said environmental lawyer Dianne Saxe, describing Harper as being "resolutely hostile on taking climate change seriously" since he took office in 2006.

"The federal government has done as little as they can on climate change," said Saxe, who authored the Canadian Environmental Legislation, 2013-2014 lawbook published by Thomson Reuters.

"The general position that Mr. Harper has taken is that he will do what the U.S. does, so when the U.S. agreed to improve car mileage, we did as well."

Saxe agreed that things were better at the subnational level, and noted that Ontario has shuttered all of its coal-fired power plants. The 2014 election result that gave the provincial Liberals a majority government could also bolster support for renewable energy projects, she said.

"We had an energy act to facilitate streamlined approvals of renewable energy projects," Saxe said. "The fact that survived was an achievement for 2014 that we should be proud of."

Symbolically, she said, the renaming of the Ontario environment minister's portfolio to the "Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change" is a hopeful sign that the province feels the issue deserves special focus.

Although it's difficult to pin extreme weather events to human-made climate change in a specific year, Davidson said forest fires and insect outbreaks — mainly infestations of the mountain pine beetle — are growing concerns that have been attributed to climate change.

"The other concerns of note for Canadians are urban heat events, particularly in central Canada, and volatility in our agriculture growing conditions," Davidson said.

Despite Canada's faltering reputation on the climate change front, Philip Gass, a senior energy researcher with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, credited the Harper government with pledging $300-million to the Green Climate Fund at the end of the G20 summit.

"We're very happy to see that contribution, but we've still not seen an emissions reduction target yet," Gass said.

The contribution would be an about-face of sorts for Harper's Conservatives, as the government had previously been among the dissenting voices to the fund, which is aimed at helping developing countries address climate change.

Gass said it may still be too early to give an accurate assessment of Canada's climate change commitments this year. However, no announcements had been made as of Dec. 1, at the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference in Lima, Peru.

A Canadian delegation led by federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq joined representatives from 195 countries to hammer out a new climate change agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

"It will be the biggest negotiating sessions since we agreed on the Kyoto agreement. It's a bit of a calm before the storm, so to speak," Gass said. "What comes out from this year will set up whether next year is a success in terms of the next big global agreement."


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