If the way federal party leaders have been debating what to do about Canada’s climate change strategy is any indication, it’s easy — almost — to understand why Canada doesn’t really have a strategy.

Talk of plans to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions during Monday night’s Munk Debate on foreign policy quickly degenerated into personal attacks, mostly about past failures. There have been a lot of failures.

One of the first things the government elected Oct. 19 will have to deal with is the Nov. 30-Dec.11 Paris climate conference. The goal of the conference is to establish the first legally binding international agreement in 20 years to manage global warming.

And as the federal leaders have all pointed out, the file is one that Canada has mismanaged for a long, long time.

Canada is the only country to sign on to the legally binding international agreement that came out of the Kyoto climate conference in 1997 — only to later repudiate it.

With no real plan, the Liberal government of Jean Chretien committed to cutting emissions six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012 in an effort to keep step with the ambitious target the U.S. decided not to pursue before the deadline.

When Canada pulled out of Kyoto in 2011 under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, the emissions it committed to reducing actually went up by about 18 per cent, from 591 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent to 701 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.

When Harper pulled us out of Kyoto, he did so arguing that Canada couldn’t act until China and the United States came on board. That excuse won’t work any longer. China announced last week it will be implementing a national cap-and-trade system not unlike Europe’s. And the U.S. proposed last year a regulation under its Environmental Protection Agency to curb national power-plant emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Last month, it announced state-by-state limits to reach the goal.

Ottawa’s response was first to point out that it agreed in 2009 during the Copenhagen climate conference to cut emissions 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. It then doubled-down on the idea of using national regulations in sectors like gas and oil and transportation to meet our commitments. According to the government’s own data on the Environment Canada website, those measures won’t be enough to bring Canada anywhere near its Copenhagen mark.

Any reasonable person would think that, having committed twice to targets it didn’t plan to meet, Canada would be a little more careful about making public commitments it has no intention of fulfilling. And yet, earlier this year, the Harper government announced it was going for a target of a 30 per cent emissions reduction below 2005 levels by 2030 — a figure eerily similar to the one our southern neighbour pledged to.

When the G7 met not long after, Canada was blasted by other countries for not being on track with the Copenhagen target and then challenged on how it planned to meet an even more aggressive one. The world’s skepticism is warranted — and it isn’t only the diplomats who aren’t buying what we’re selling.

A Pew Research survey on global attitudes and trends released in the summer shows that 42 per cent of Canadians are “very concerned” about climate change. The only threat ranking higher, at 58 per cent, is ISIS.

Climate change is a happening and it is causing problems that are very real, both at home and abroad. Ocean current patterns are slowing and changing. Ice caps are melting. Sea levels are rising. In fact, sea levels have risen so much that, last year, a family from a small Pacific Ocean island called Tuvalu sought refuge in New Zealand because of extreme weather and crop destruction associated with climate change.

The transnational nature of climate change means that a response requires international co-operation. Canada, to date, hasn’t been a team player.

While the provinces, which have jurisdiction over resources and different interests, have arguably complicated our response to climate change in the past, these days they’re the ones taking steps to mitigate the threat. British Columbia has a carbon tax, Quebec has a cap-and-trade system, Ontario has committed to implement one and Alberta is looking at various items of legislation regulating emissions.

Canada has been shamed long enough by a lack of national leadership on climate change. Unless potential prime ministers stop pointing fingers and start talking policy, Canada is going to have the same problem in Paris.

This is a cross-post originally published on iPolitics

Roberta Bell is a master’s student at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication. She is also studying Canadian foreign policy through the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.


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