Prentice warms to critics ahead of climate talks
Article Comments (2) BILL CURRY and MARTIN MITTELSTAEDT
Globe and Mail Update
November 28, 2008 at 7:11 PM EST
OTTAWA and TORONTO — Through a series of casual chats on Parliament Hill, Environment Minister Jim Prentice has personally invited his opposition critics to join him at the UN's global climate-change talks taking place next week in Poland.
It is a small but symbolic gesture that signals a clear change in tone on the environment file from the Harper government.
This time last year, opposition environment critics were furious at then- environment-minister John Baird, who broke from established practice in refusing to bring them as part of the Canadian delegation.
Known as the Convention on Climate Change, the annual gathering allows countries to share ideas and negotiate new targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
This round of talks – being held in the western Polish city of Poznan – comes at a crucial moment. Time is running out for the countries to negotiate an extension to the Kyoto Protocol before it expires in 2012.
World leaders have to make progress in Poland on drafting terms for the extension, which must be approved at the next United Nations summit just 11 months from now in Copenhagen, if it is to have any hope of being implemented.
Having already pledged to work closely with U.S. president-elect Barack Obama on global warming, Canada's new Environment Minister appears to be softening his government's partisan edge.
“I think there's a growing understanding and growing sophistication,” said John Drexhage, director of the International Institute for Sustainable Development. “I see a change in tone on the part of the Harper government.”
In an interview, Mr. Prentice said countries will be focused on meeting that looming deadline of next year when they gather in Poznan.
“In Copenhagen, the world will essentially turn the page in one way or another on Kyoto and hopefully conclude a new international protocol,” he said.
The minister predicts the talks in Poznan will be affected by three main factors: the global economic downturn; a growing internal debate in Europe over emission reduction targets; and the election of Mr. Obama, who has vowed to re-engage the United States in the UN climate-change process.
“Poznan is an extremely important stock-taking conference,” Mr. Prentice said. “This will be first chance for the international community to come together to talk about the way forward in light of those realities.”
The minister is also planning a visit to Washington in the near future to gather information on how Canada could work with Mr. Obama on climate change.
Mr. Prentice's critics say that while the shift in tone is welcome, they will be looking for significant changes in Canada's approach at these UN talks.
Environmentalists at home and abroad have been highly critical of Canada – both for rejecting the Kyoto targets set by the previous Liberal government and for refusing to join European leaders in calling for even deeper goals for 2020 and beyond.
Environmentalists have also accused Canadian officials of acting deliberately to prevent consensus for more aggressive greenhouse-gas reduction targets.
“It'll be a good test as to whether Canada will decide to rejoin the world community in terms of the environment,” Liberal MP Ken Dryden said. “You can give signs beforehand … but I think this will be the best indication of where Mr. Harper's mind is on this. The environment has never been a priority for him.”
The Polish talks will have to grapple with several thorny technical issues. Currently, international shipping and air travel are exempt from emission controls, and there is pressure for them to be included in any new pact. There is also a debate over whether developing countries with tropical forests should be given emission credits for agreeing not to log these areas. After the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation is one of the biggest contributors to global warming.
While the politicians try to negotiate terms of an extension, environmentalists say scientific evidence of accelerating climate changes is making it imperative that they agree to major emission reductions.
“The science is in. Climate change is happening faster than any of our models predicted,” said Julia Langer, a spokeswoman for WWF-Canada, an environmental advocacy group.
The talks will provide an indication of whether the international community is up for the kind of sizable emission cuts – perhaps as much as 40 per cent by 2020 – that many scientists and environmentalists say will be needed to avoid widespread environmental damage from global warming.
Ms. Langer said the Kyoto extension should aim to have emissions peak somewhere between 2015 and 2020. “The window for actually stopping dangerous climate change is closing very quickly,” she said.