Greenhouse Gas Emissions Accord (Nov97 Updates)

Standing in the back of the room, Louise Comeau didn't even attempt to hide her anger.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 24, 1997

Standing in the back of the room, Louise Comeau didn't even attempt to hide her anger.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on November 24, 1997

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Accord (Nov97 Updates)

Standing in the back of the room, Louise Comeau didn't even attempt to hide her anger. In front of the cameras, words like "progress," "consensus" and "flexibility" were the descriptions of choice as politicians fielded questions about last week's federal-provincial accord on greenhouse gas emissions. But to Comeau, the director of climate change for the environmentalist organization Sierra Club of Canada, they were only empty platitudes. Turning on her heels in the midst of the news conference that brought to an end the meeting of the country's environment and energy ministers in Regina's Hotel Saskatchewan, Comeau could stand to hear no more. "Progress? What progress?" she sneered. "All this does is guarantee that negotiations will shift to the weakest position on the table and we can forget about Canada playing a broker role on the world stage."

Progress was, in fact, not the word that came to mind when assessing the agreement produced after seven hours behind closed doors. To many critics, backsliding seemed more accurate. Stripped of the warm and fuzzy language that inevitably accompanies federal-provincial accords, this one was not a fresh line, but an old one trotted out as new and improved. Canada's position at next month's World Environment Summit in Kyoto, Japan, will be to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2010. Or, in other words, to do what Ottawa agreed to at the last earth summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 - only 10 years later (in Rio, Canada agreed to stabilize emissions by the millennium). It is a stance much the same as that of the United States, which wants to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2012. And try as federal Environment Minister Christine Stewart and Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale did to put a happy face on the agreement, others were not buying it. "This makes a liar out of Jean Chrétien, who promised to do better than the United States," says Jim Fulton, executive director of the Vancouver-based Suzuki Institute.

By week's end, federal sources were saying the full Canadian position will not be revealed until after the cabinet meets this week. They also said they expect the Prime Minister to further commit Canada to cutting emissions by 10 to 14 per cent in the years after stabilization has occurred. "Stay tuned," said one federal official. But even if Chrétien ups the ante for Kyoto, it is unlikely to satisfy environmentalists who believe the threat of global warming from carbon dioxide emissions requires more immediate and decisive action. "We need two things," says Robert Hornung, climate change program director for the environmental organization Pembina Institute in Ottawa. "Stabilization at 1990 levels in place by 2005 - and then we have to begin reducing our emissions. Waiting only increases the risk and makes the problem all that more difficult to deal with in the future."

That view is shared by Paul Bégin, environment minister for hydro-rich Quebec, who refused to endorse the federal-provincial consensus. Instead, Bégin argued for stabilization of emissions by the turn of the century and reductions beginning in 2005. According to Bégin, Quebec and other parts of Canada have already experienced the effects of global warming, and he pointed to the massive floods in the Lac St-Jean area and Manitoba's Red River Valley as examples. "Those two events cost upwards of $1.5 billion," says Bégin. "We should put that money into reducing greenhouse gases, rather than to repair what the weather does."

Some federal advisers said they expected a critical international response to Canada's position. In particular, the European Union is likely to react "highly negatively," noted one Canadian official based in Europe. "As with the Americans, they were looking for a much stronger commitment." But he also noted that the European Union's promise to cut emissions by 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010 has been facilitated not only by the collapse of Britain's coal industry but also by German reunification, which has resulted in reduced emissions in part because of the closure of factories in the former East Germany. "The EU is playing a game," said the official, who requested anonymity. "What they are doing is using the situations in Germany and the United Kingdom, which by themselves will reduce emissions, to their advantage."

Certainly a massive body of science tends to validate the view that dumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere presents an environmental danger with far-reaching economic and social effects. Many scientists say carbon dioxide, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels, traps heat in the atmosphere, slowly raising the earth's temperature - the greenhouse effect. While a small minority of experts still question whether warming is caused by greenhouse gases - or if the trend even exists - the vast majority of scientists and climatologists agree the earth's temperature is rising - and blame increasing emissions.

While Canada accounts for only two per cent of the world's greenhouse gas production, it is, per capita, the ninth-largest emitter. Since 1990, Canadian emissions have increased by 13 per cent. According to a federal report on climate change released last May, by 2050 the country could be experiencing average temperatures 6° C higher. In that event, the frequency and intensity of droughts would increase, water flows across the nation would fluctuate wildly from region to region, storms would become more intense and agriculture production would be in a state of upheaval. "The risk of doing nothing, or not enough, could be catastrophic," says Elaine McCoy, a former Alberta cabinet minister and now president of the environmental research Macleod Institute at the University of Calgary.

In spite of such dire warnings, reconciling longer-term environmental worries with the more immediate concerns of politicians defies easy solution. Many argue that the tradeoff for a rigorous policy is less economic development. Shreesh Juyal, a University of Regina political scientist and member of Canada's preparatory committee for the Rio summit, says environmental issues have suffered from a political agenda driven by fiscal concerns. "I agree politics forces government to take short-term decisions, but what we need is a federal government that takes a brave stand, even if it might offend energy-producing provinces."

The struggle between economics and the environment was openly played out in Regina last week as lobbyists from both sides worked the politicians and the media. David Manning, president of the Calgary-based Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says the oil and gas industry does not oppose efforts to limit and eventually reduce greenhouse gases. But, he argues, it cannot be done by governments imposing excessive restrictions that harm the industry. "We don't have a pathological fear of command and control by government, but we do want to keep the country competitive," says Manning, calling the stabilization target of 2010 "realistic."

On the other hand, the Suzuki Institute's Fulton believes that Canada's position indicates the Chrétien government has succumbed to the business lobby. "All it does is show that the energy ministers are more powerful than the environment ministers," Fulton says. And he added that last week's accord suggests the Reform party's argument that the science on global warming is not clear enough to justify significant government intervention has had its effect. As if to underscore that point, Reformers were on hand in Regina to trumpet their party's position. Natural resources critic Dave Chatters fielded questions from the media in a suite at the hotel. "The idea you can save the planet by reducing to 1990 levels by 2010 and still allow for industrial development just doesn't work," said Chatters. "This is a headlong rush into something we don't know enough about."

But in spite of all the talk about falling economic growth if Ottawa intervenes to reduce emissions, the Chrétien government's cautious approach seems out of step with public opinion. Recent polls indicate that a large majority of Canadians support stronger measures to curb greenhouse gas production. A recent survey by Environics Research of Toronto found that 51 per cent of Canadians want government to take action that exceeds its Rio commitment, while 42 per cent believe Canada should meet its commitment. More surprisingly, opinions do not change significantly by region. In Alberta, for example, where Ralph Klein's Tory government has taken a hard line against any tough federal measures, fully 48 per cent support action to exceed the 1992 goal of stabilization by 2000.

No doubt that attitude explains why the Alberta government was willing to be part of a consensus once the Chrétien government ruled out a carbon tax - a levy meant to discourage the use of fossil fuels - as an option. As one senior Klein adviser pointed out, the Alberta government wanted to "set the ground rules" - namely, that Ottawa would not impose a tax on energy - before it became involved in discussions. The provincial government is now looking ahead to the next major battle on the greenhouse gas front, when implementation of any international agreement reached in Japan has to be hammered out in Canada. "The devil is in the details and we won't get into that until after Kyoto, but at this point we're comfortable with what's happened so far," he said. Environmentalists, of course, hardly share that opinion. For them, Canada's position in Kyoto will amount to too little, too late.

Maclean's November 24, 1997