Environment Forum

A messenger Canada would rather ignore

If there’s one person the Canadian government would perhaps rather not hear from right now, it’s Tim Flannery, the vocal Australian climate change campaigner. Canada, which over the last 20 years or so has largely preferred to let economic development trump environmental concerns,  is trying to keep a low profile in the run-up to the Copenhagen meeting in December charged with producing a successor to the Kyoto accord.  Canada’s Conservative government — following the lead of former U.S. President George W. Bush – walked away from Kyoto on the grounds that it would damage the economy. Canada has made an enormous amount of money shipping oil to the United States, much of it from the tar sands in the western province of Alberta. Developing those sands burns up a huge amount of carbon and Canadian emissions are rising steadily, so it’s no coincidence that Canada says it is for action on climate change while allowing responsible economic development.  Environment Minister Jim Prentice told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp on Wednesday that Canada would bring “a reasonable constructive approach” to Copenhagen.  This is a message which wins few friends among environmentalists.

Flannery rolled into town on Wednesday and loudly announced that Ottawa’s role in the talks leading up to Copenhagen so far had been very unhelpful. “We desperately need Canada to play a much more positive role in the coming months . . . the Canadian government is largely isolated in its stand vis-a-vis the Copenhagen agreements. It would be tragic, I think, to see a country like this standing in the way of agreement,” he told reporters.

If the truth be told, Canada is not doing much of anything on the environment right now, in part because of last year’s U.S. presidential election and the victory of Barack Obama, who vowed tough action on climate change.  Ottawa had promised to introduce rules to cut emissions starting in 2010 but those are on hold until Washington decides what approach it will take on climate change. The same goes for Canadian plans to set up a carbon trading market: let’s wait for Obama.  While this is understandable — there’s little point taking the time and trouble to craft a green policy only to see it wrecked because your main trading partner decided to go off in a different direction — it only adds to the impression of inertia.

Canada needs to get its domestic policies in order. It’s concerning to see the Canadian government say it will follow the U.S. lead in terms of carbon trading and so forth,” said Flannery. “But then we enter a period of a lull where there is very little activity to follow that up . . . time is exceedingly short for Canada — with its very different economy and very different approach to this problem — to be able to follow the lead of the U.S. in any meaningful way.

The Conservatives’  main power base in is Alberta, home to most of the tar sands projects, so the party has to tread carefully when it comes to cutting emissions. Ottawa would rather talk about carbon capture and on Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the Canadian and Alberta governments would invest C$779 million ($756 million) in one such project.

“taking cars off the road”, or climate tokenism?

There’s no shortage of references these days in corporate and government reports to earnest, new steps to fight climate change. Often they promise to make carbon emissions cuts equivalent to taking millions of cars off the road…

For example, take Europe’s fourth biggest single source of carbon emissions, Britain’s Drax coal plant. It said in March that as a result of efficiency improvements it had cut carbon emissions equivalent to taking 195,000 cars off the road.  But of course that was a cut against a theoretical projection of rising emissions — not an absolute cut.

Take a similar announcement from Canada this week. The oil industry in Alberta is busy trying to extract oil from tar sands. That is a far more polluting, energy-intensive way than just sucking the stuff out of oil wells, because steam must first be injected into the sand to make the oil flow. Now Alberta is experimenting with a technology, called carbon capture and storage, with three test projects which by 2015 would “achieve annual carbon dioxide reductions equivalent to taking about a million vehicles off the road”, the province says.