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The Sydney nudge: How green is my Harper

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

It takes some getting used to hearing Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the world stage claiming that Canada must be a “world leader” in combatting climate change.

We remember, after all, his skepticism about climate change as opposition leader. We recall his questioning of the science of global warming, his criticism of the Liberals' ineffectual measures as being too ambitious, his warnings about the disastrous effects on the Canadian economy.

We read his party's platform, Stand Up for Canada, with its two measly sentences about climate change, compared with seven pages about cleaning up corruption in government. And we cannot forget his first, halting efforts to construct a climate-change approach, efforts that only got serious when the hot breath of public opinion toughened his policy.

His audience of business leaders at the APEC summit yesterday likely knew nothing of Mr. Harper's belated conversion to the cause. Nor did they know that the measures his government contemplates, although much better than anything Liberal governments tried, will still allow emissions to rise.

Mr. Harper claimed yesterday his policies would stabilize emissions by 2010 and start reducing them thereafter until they fell by at least 50 per cent by 2050.

Independent studies of the Conservative policies suggest the contrary. The simulations of Simon Fraser University's Mark Jaccard, whose model has been used by the federal government for years, show emissions rising by more than 100 million tonnes between now and 2050, instead of falling by almost 400 million tonnes, as they must do to reach the 50-per-cent reduction target.

The Conservative policies will fail because they do not put a high enough price on carbon and other greenhouse-gas emissions. Without that pricing, long-term adjustments will not be large enough to produce the reductions Mr. Harper pretends.

Partisan as always, even on foreign soil, Mr. Harper could not resist criticizing the failure of Liberal policies, an accurate critique but one best left for domestic debate rather than the international stage. In particular, he chastised the Liberals for being “unwilling to tell the public that reducing carbon emissions must entail real economic costs in the short term.” True enough, but Mr. Harper's government hasn't outlined those costs, either, apart from acknowledging that “reducing carbon emissions imposes costs in the short term.”

It is a fine objective to suggest Canada should become a “clean energy superpower,” an improvement on the previous slogan about Canada's being an “energy superpower.” But the Harper government's policies will not achieve that objective, especially with an anticipated tripling or quadrupling of oil from the tar sands, each barrel of which takes two to three times as much energy to extract as conventional oil.

The APEC audience, of course, knew little or none of this. And they would not have made sense of another Harper claim: that his government has restored “Canada's stature and influence on the world stage.” What's happening on the sidelines of APEC gives the lie to that assertion, as do the cuts already made and those forthcoming to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

One of APEC's purposes is to allow leaders to meet bilaterally. Of those gathered in Sydney, Mr. Harper is meeting only two (apart from the host, Australian Prime Minister John Howard), from Peru and New Zealand.

Mr. Harper has recently met the leaders of the United States, Mexico, Japan and Chile. But to travel to Australia to meet only the leaders of Peru and New Zealand, two of APEC's smallest members, doesn't say much about Canada's “stature and influence on the world stage.”

Leaders are tripping over themselves to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao, who is spending seven days in Australia. But Mr. Harper, perhaps reflecting on the strained embarrassment of their stony meeting at the previous APEC gathering, hasn't got a meeting with him. Or with the leaders of Russia, Indonesia, South Korea or any of the Southeast Asian countries.

Still, charity demands a recognition that Mr. Harper has moved dramatically on climate change. In the last campaign, he pooh-poohed the Kyoto Protocol, ratified under the Liberals but opposed by the Conservatives, saying Canada needed a “made-in-Canada” approach.

Now, Mr. Harper urges a “new, universal, climate-change protocol for the post-2012 era” and pledges that “Canada will do everything in its power to help develop a new, all-inclusive framework.”

What a change those words represent when compared with the fumbling, incoherent position Mr. Harper's hapless first environment minister, Rona Ambrose, was forced to take at a climate-change conference that Canada chaired in Bonn.

The shift from Canada as climate-change obstacle and laughingstock to belatedly becoming a constructive player in future international negotiations can only be welcomed.

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