U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have raised the stakes in the battle over global climate policy, and in doing so, are forcing the hand of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
In a deal signed on Wednesday in Beijing, the two leaders agreed to make greater efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions. The announcement is expected to generate momentum as nations prepare for the UN climate summit in Lima later this month with the goal of reaching an international agreement next year in Paris.
Fast-growing China committed to slowing the rise of GHG emissions and stabilizing them by 2030. Mr. Obama pledged the United States would reduce its emissions by 26 per cent from 2005 levels by 2025.
The U.S.-China accord raises significant challenges heading into an election year for Mr. Harper, who has linked Canada's actions on climate change with those of the United States.
"All of our political and policy framework has been around keeping pace with the Americans, and that was fine when the American ambition was modest," said David McLaughlin, former president of the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy. "But alignment with the U.S. just got a lot tougher and more complex."
The Prime Minister has long been criticized on climate change. Five years ago, he pledged Canada would reduce its emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020, a target equal to that adopted by Mr. Obama. While the Americans stand a reasonable chance of hitting that goal, Canada will fall short without aggressive new action, including regulations on the oil sands.
Now, the United States is pledging to double the pace of emissions reductions to 2025, with a fairly ambitious target of a 26-per-cent reduction. The United Nations wants countries to declare their post-2020 targets by the end of March. Canada will be hard-pressed to match the United States, in part because GHGs from the oil sands are expected to triple between 2005 and 2020. (That may slow if lower crude prices result in a drop in investment.)
Liberal environment critic John McKay said it is a "game changer" that Canada's largest trading partner has agreed with its second largest trading partner to an aggressive GHG reduction plan. He said the opposition parties will keep the heat on the Prime Minster, including calls to regulate oil and gas emissions.
Mr. Harper and Alberta Premier Jim Prentice insist Canada cannot impose costly emission regulations on the oil sands unless the United States adopts GHG rules for its oil sector. The Obama administration is focusing on coal-fired power generation, which accounts for nearly 40 per cent of U.S. emissions.
A spokesman for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq said the Harper government has taken "decisive action" on GHG emissions, including regulations that prevent utilities from building coal-fired power plants or extending the lives of existing ones. "In 2012, GHGs were 5.1 per cent lower than 2005 levels, while the economy grew by 10.6 per cent during the same period," Ted Laking said in an e-mail. "Indeed, per capita carbon emissions have fallen to their lowest level since tracking began."
Environment Canada expects emissions to rise again, and grow to 20 per cent higher than the 2020 target without new action.
With Wednesday's agreement, the U.S. President has claimed a major foreign-policy and environmental victory. However, he faces a pitched battle with congressional Republicans on his climate agenda.
To meet the targets, the country would have to continue its shift away from coal-fired electricity, invest heavily in renewable energy, and have widespread adoption of low-emission vehicles – all policies the Republican-controlled Congress opposes.
China also faces tremendous challenges. With a growing middle-class, the world's largest emitter is facing higher demand for electricity and gasoline or diesel. It leads the world in investment in nuclear and renewable energy.