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Jim Prentice On Formulating the Canadian Response to Climate Change: Copy America!

November 27, 2009

With less than two weeks remaining before the opening of the climate change conference in Copenhagen, Environment Minister Jim Prentice took to the pages of the National Post the other day to explain the “intelligent, measured approach” he considered appropriate for Canada to bring to Copenhagen and to the issue of climate change in general. I’m rather pleased that Prentice took this step: the Harper government is not exactly noted for sharing its thinking with the public, so it’s good to see a cabinet minister engaging in this kind of public communication. For the most part, Prentice’s piece is even substantive and well-written, giving a clear idea of what he means by “intelligent” and “measured”.

Jim Prentice, a man intent on explaining himself to the Canadian public. Photo by Flickr user k-ideas, reproduced under a Creative Commons-Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.

The bad news, unfortunately, is that Prentice’s idea of how Canada should deal with climate change is somewhere between disappointing and farcical.

The trouble starts with this peculiar assertion:

Let’s be absolutely clear: Copenhagen is about negotiating an international treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. The domestic climate change plans of the 192 countries at the table — including Canada — are absolutely not at issue in this process and have no bearing on its outcome. When we reconvene in December, the intent is to conclude a political agreement that can generate the momentum required to forge a broader, more specific and comprehensive document over the course of 2010.

“Political agreement” seems to be developing into a code-phrase for “agreement with no binding targets”, so Prentice’s endorsement of this idea is perhaps dispiriting in itself, but to say that domestic plans are not at issue is just bizarre. If the treaty is supposed to set targets for individual countries, as any replacement for the Kyoto Protocol would have to do, then of course each country’s domestic policies will be constrained by the target. Perhaps the point is that our current plans don’t have any bearing on the process, which is probably a good thing because our current plans are so unspectacular.

It gets worse. Prentice warns darkly that “Canada’s already seen, with the Kyoto Accord, what happens when a country signs an agreement without due consideration of the consequences”, but people might be forgiven for thinking that we’ve actually seen what happens when a country signs an agreement and then proceeds to ignore it. Fortunately, Prentice at least thinks we’ve at least learned two lessons from our Kyoto “experience”:

First, an effective multilateral agreement on climate change requires the engagement of all emitters, led by the largest: China and the United States.

Second, we will do exactly what we have consistently said we would do: We will match U.S. efforts.

The first point has some merit, to the extent that it’s important to keep China and the US on board if possible. The second lesson is more problematic, to say the least. It sounds like a bold, ringing declaration of principle until the last four words, when Prentice effectively hands control of Canadian climate policy to a foreign government. His justification is twofold:

If we do more than the U.S., we will suffer economic pain for no real environmental gain — pain that, especially during challenging economic times, could impede our ability to invest in new clean technologies. But if we do less, we will risk facing new border barriers into the American market.

The problem with the first part of the statement is Prentice’s frankly defeatist notion that Canadian actions cannot produce any “real environmental gain” on their own. It’s true that the Canadian share of global annual greenhouse emissions is only around 2%, which means that even reducing our emissions to zero would leave 98% of total emissions in place if no other country acted. However, every fraction of a percent does help, and this is an area where the concept of leading by example applies in spades. If Canada can help the already active Europeans blaze a trail that leads to a viable low-carbon economy, other nations will at least consider the possibility of following.

What about the alternative possibility of doing less than the US? This wouldn’t help blaze a trail to anywhere, but it’s galling that Prentice thinks trade with America is so important to Canada that we don’t even have the option. It’s even more galling that he may be right, as long as the US accounts for 76% of our exports and 65% of our imports. This creates a level of dependence that gives America a virtual stranglehold on Canada’s economy. Breaking that stranglehold by building relationships with other countries should be a central – perhaps even the central – goal of Canadian foreign policy.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. nmboudin permalink*
    December 1, 2009 12:24 am

    I realize that I don’t have a deep understanding of all the deep-seated issues, but I don’t understand how taking the lead on our own GHG emissions prevents us trading with the U.S.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      December 1, 2009 11:00 am

      The potential threat to trade would arise if we chose to adopt less stringent measures than the US, and the US then decided to apply tarriffs or other penalties to “level the playing field” for its own manufacturers. Personally, I think we should set stricter targets than the rather middling ones being discussed in the US anyway, and under this scenario the problem of trade barriers wouldn’t arise. But I do find it galling, as I said in the original post, that our economy is so dependent on America’s that setting a less stringent target in Canada is probably not even a realistic option. Next time, our lack of economic independence might have more serious consequences than simply forcing us to do something we ought to be doing anyway.

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