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News

Climate Change, Ghost Issue of 2011 Election

First of three stories on matters of huge significance weirdly drawing scant attention.

By Geoff Dembicki 27 Apr 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Geoff Dembicki reports for The Tyee with a focus on the Alberta oil sands and the fossil fuels industry.

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One of the world's best known climate scientists, an Australian, watched in amazement earlier this month as Canada's four federal leadership contenders debated the country's future.

"I was mystified to see that the environment just didn't rank at all," Tim Flannery, best-selling author of the Weather Makers, told Postmedia News after the televised debates.

Flannery's remarks underscore a strange reality lost on most Canadians: The international community appears to worry more about Canada's environmental commitments -- particularly around climate change -- than many of our own elected officials.

This is not just one Australian scientist's opinion. Over 400 green groups gave Canada a "Fossil of the Year" award at the 2009 Copenhagen summit, bequeathed for inaction on global warming.

And Canada received an equally dubious crown during the Cancun climate talks last November.

This trend has coincided with a growing awareness of Alberta's oil sands in Europe and the United States, where many legislators and environmentalists frame the industry as a step backwards for greenhouse gas reductions.

Even the New York Times weighed in on April 2 with a scathing editorial implying Canada's green leadership has been missing in action.

Blame it on Dion?

Yet these issues have barely registered during a federal election campaign so far focused mainly on healthcare, the economy and jobs.

"It's unfortunate," the Pembina Institute's Clare Demerse told the Tyee. "Climate change is definitely in the top handful of issues that Canadians do care about and expect their government to deliver on. We have not had a full discussion so far."

Observers have postulated several reasons for the lack of environmental impetus on the campaign trail.

They cite former Liberal leader Stephane Dion's disastrous embrace of a national carbon tax during the 2008 federal contest; or a country more concerned about post-recession recovery; or poll results putting the environment right near the bottom of election issue priorities.

Whatever the explanation, argues Demerse, Canadians should not think for a second that issues such as global warming have somehow become less urgent.

In fact, an Environment Canada report from earlier this year concluded that current government policies will only get us a quarter of the way towards our medium-term climate commitments.

And only last December, another federal government analysis questioned whether Canada even has a coherent global warming strategy.

All the while, Canadian officials have been lobbying legislators in Europe and the United States to hollow out climate change laws targeting Alberta's oil sands.

'Fossil of the year'

So how did we get here, exactly?

Canada's first major foray into global warming policy came with its signing onto the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, one the earliest countries to do so.

In effect, the federal Liberal government under Jean Chretien pledged to cut national greenhouse gas emissions six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012.

That commitment was dealt a deathblow in 2006 with the election of a Conservative minority government led by Stephen Harper.

His party had long argued for a "made-in-Canada" approach to global warming -- and indeed, the first Harper budget contained no mention of Kyoto.

Canada entered international climate talks in Copenhagen three years later with no clear strategy for reducing its carbon footprint.

By then more than 400 environmental organizations had taken notice, tagging Canada as "fossil of the year" and calling us "the absolute worst country at the talks."

Shortly afterwards, the Harper government signed on to the Copenhagen Accord, pledging to harmonize Canada's greenhouse gas policy with the United States.

This revised climate plan calls for a 17 per cent reduction in carbon emissions below 2005 levels by 2020. Though the government claims that to be progress, it's actually less stringent than the targets mandated by Kyoto, groups like Greenpeace pointed out.

In the midst of these developments, the Canadian government also solidified alliances with some of the planet's biggest oil companies.

Their goal? Lobby against any climate change policy in the U.S. or Europe which could hurt Alberta's oil sands.

No plan in place

It'd been a trend in effect since at least 2007, when Canada raised its first official objections to California's low carbon fuel standard, a plan to make road fuels cleaner.

The rationale was that such policies would undercut the market for Albertan oil, considered one of the most greenhouse-gas-intensive sources of road fuel on Earth.

In Washington, D.C., the lobbying push grew more intense by the year, as Canadian and Alberta government officials fought aggressively to counter any oil-sands opposition. (Read a major Tyee series reported from America's capitol here).

During one skirmish last December, Canada's U.S. ambassador, Gary Doer, shrugged off concerns about the industry's carbon footprint.

Writing to a Democrat congressmen concerned about Keystone XL, a major proposed oil sands pipeline, Doer trumpeted the Harper government's Copenhagen commitments.

"[This is] a benchmark we intend to meet," he wrote.

Doer's statements appeared to ignore the urgent conclusions issued by Canada's federal environment commissioner, Scott Vaughan, only 10 days earlier.

If Canada had a coherent climate change plan, Vaughan couldn't find it.

And his scathing federal audit identified "a pattern of unclear and uncoordinated actions" that was "aggravated by the overriding problem of a lack of sustained leadership."

Ambassador Doer's politely firm letter also failed to mention that Canada had once again been awarded "Fossil of the Year" at November's international climate talks in Cancun. (Or that Canada went into those talks empty-handed after the conservative-leaning Senate voted down new climate legislation right before they began).

But most troubling of all for some green observers was an Environment Canada report released just last February.

Based on existing federal and provincial policies, the department concluded, Canada risked falling 75 per cent short of its 2020 climate goals.

A major factor is the rapid expansion of Alberta's unconventional fossil fuel industry.

"[Greenhouse gas] emissions from oil-sands production will almost triple between 2006 and 2020," Environment Canada once warned, "making it the largest single contributor to Canada's medium-term emissions growth."

'No escaping these issues'

Opinion makers within the United States have grown increasingly aware of the industry's carbon footprint -- and Canada's apparent reluctance to regulate it.

As week one of the federal election kicked off, the New York Times urged American policymakers to strike down a proposed oil sands pipeline, Keystone XL, which would stretch south to Gulf Coast refineries.

"The environmental risks, for both countries, are enormous," read an editorial that cited greenhouse gases as a major worry.

Beyond the odd isolated comment along the campaign trail, climate change concerns have not influenced the ongoing federal election's narrative.

But whether Canada's elected officials choose to address them now or later, "there's no escaping these issues," said Flannery, the Australian climate scientist.

"Year on year, decade on decade," he added, "[They're] only going to keep growing."

Interested in where each party stands on the environment? Check out the results of a detailed questionnaire issued by four Canadian green groups.

And for an in-depth Pembina Institute analysis of each party's greenhouse gas platform, click here.  [Tyee]

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