WASHINGTON Prime Minister Stephen Harper heads to a high-profile United Nations summit on climate change next week to broker global debate over curbing harmful emissions.
Scheduled to speak at Monday's one-day event attended by 80 world leaders, Mr. Harper will likely trumpet a recent deal with Asia-Pacific countries for voluntary reductions of greenhouse gases, instead of binding targets.
Some observers say he's becoming a point man of sorts for a looser, “aspirational” approach, one that won't go over well among some at the summit, where UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hopes to galvanize political will for a new deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012.
“We're glad he's taking this seriously enough to be at the UN,” said Dale Marshall at the David Suzuki Foundation in Ottawa.
“But Canada needs to strengthen its position and move away from the Bush administration,” which opposes mandatory targets and favours lots of wiggle room.
It's customary for Canada's prime minister to address the opening of the UN General Assembly each fall. The fact that Mr. Harper is talking at the summit instead is testament to the issue's importance to Canadians and Conservative political fortunes.
A Harper spokeswoman chalked it up partly to scheduling conflicts but noted the environment is a priority of the minority government.
Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier will talk to the UN assembly Oct. 1.
For Mr. Harper, it's a chance to convince countries that Kyoto is unrealistic, letting Canada move forward as an energy superpower with fewer constraints, said Michael Behiels, a professor at the University of Ottawa.
“Canada has a vested interest in changing this debate. At the heart of this is economics,” including the profitability of Alberta's oil sands, said Mr. Behiels.
“He's going to be one of the standard-bearers of that movement to get countries off the UN track and adopt a different paradigm.”
That may make a lot of sense to some who viewed as wildly improbable Kyoto's stringent targets for reducing greenhouse gases linked to global warming. But it worries environmentalists on both sides of the border.
“The voluntary path won't deliver the steep reductions we need,” said Elliot Diringer from the Pew Centre on Global Climate Change.
U.S. President George W. Bush is also supposed to attend the UN summit but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will reportedly deliver the U.S. remarks.
Bush is hosting his own gathering of the world's biggest polluters in a week's time in the U.S. capital, with the European Union and 15 other countries. Canada's Environment Minister John Baird will attend.
U.S. officials say they hope the two-day conference will feed into a general agreement by 2009 on what each country plans to do to reduce greenhouse gases.
But many worry Mr. Bush's efforts will subvert the UN process leading up to a critical get-together of environment ministers in December in Bali, Indonesia.
“The (Bush) meeting is designed to derail progress,” said Angela Anderson at the National Environmental Trust in Washington.
In Ottawa, Baird spokesman Garry Keller said Canada understands the UN process is “key to achieving global results.”
“That's why we are moving aggressively to cut greenhouse gases and fight climate change in Canada.”
The U.S. President, who has questioned the science of global warming, has always refused to adopt what he has called the “fatally flawed” Kyoto pact, saying it would cripple the U.S. economy.
Under pressure to take firmer action as Congress and states develop their own policies to reduce emissions, however, Mr. Bush now talks about climate change as a serious problem.
Mr. Harper, once a climate change skeptic as well, now calls it a growing menace and one of the world's most important challenges.
“Both leaders are saying all the right things but doing very little,” said Mr. Marshall. “This is all code for: ‘We're not going to hold you to anything.' ”
Mr. Harper has applauded the APEC agreement, which calls on the world to “slow, stop and then reverse the growth of a global greenhouse gas emissions,” as the first to include the United States, China and Russia.
Canada's goal is to reduce its emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, relative to 2006 levels, says Mr. Harper.
Kyoto was much tougher, calling for six per cent reductions from 1990 levels by 2012.
Since the 1997 protocol was signed by the Liberals, emissions actually rose.