Less than four months into its mandate, the new Canadian government appears to be on an environmental collision course of its own making.
Openly dubious about the Kyoto Protocol, to which it is legally bound, the administration of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is sending out a series of mixed messages.
In his first budget on May 2, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty studiously avoided a single reference to “Kyoto,” while abandoning the previous Liberal regime’s C$4 billion plan to meet Kyoto targets.
Instead, it talked about a C$2 billion “made-in-Canada” solution to climate change, tossing C$370 million into subsidized transit passes over two years.
Meanwhile, Environment Minister Rona Ambrose has floated the idea that Canada may join the United States, India, China, Australia, South Korea and Japan in the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate — a group that accounts for half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The group, known as the AP6, has been scorned by environmentalists because it proposes no penalties and only small financial commitments.
Ambrose has also met with President George W. Bush’s senior advisor on environmental issues, James Connaughton, and U.S. undersecretary of state for global affairs, Paula Dobriansky to explore ways for the two countries to co-operate in cleaning up North America’s air and water.
Ambrose: AP6 ‘very interesting’Ambrose said that although the U.S. officials did not ask Canada to join the AP6, she views the partnership as a “very interesting group. … They’re doing things that we’re very interested in participating in further down the road.”
Among other things, the AP6 presents a unique opportunity for Canada to look at investments in cleaner technology,” she said.
Otherwise, Ambrose said the Harper government will remain in Kyoto, although the targets to reduce emissions are unrealistic.
Later, under fire from opposition parties in Parliament, she declined to talk about joining the AP6, saying the focus is on a “made-in-Canada” plan.
She said the Kyoto plan could have seen Canada spend an average C$600 per family on international emissions credits, where she wants a plan that invests in Canadian solutions, technology and communities.
“The only model I’m interested in is one that puts Canadians first,” Ambrose said.
She is now developing a strategy for the second phase of Kyoto, beyond the initial 2008-2012 period, when Canada is pledged to cut emissions by 6 percent below 1990 levels.
The latest government figures show emissions are actually 24.4 percent above 1990 and are expected to continue to rise as fast as oil sands development gathers momentum.
According to observers, opting out of Kyoto would take two years or more, during which time Canada could face trade sanctions from Kyoto signatories or pay billions of dollars to buy greenhouse gas credits.
Environmentalists skepticalWhile the government wrestles with its options, environmentalists are skeptical about the administration’s commitment to tackling climate change.
Sierra Club spokesman John Bennett said the AP6 “relies entirely on voluntary action” when Canada should be working on a program that has “real targets.”
Scientists are worried that even if promising research avenues were available, federal funds will dry up.
The Harper government’s commitment to pursuing its “made-in-Canada” path was reinforced when Flaherty withdrew a pledge by the previous government to spend C$538 million defraying the costs of Ontario actions to fight climate change.
The funding was intended to help Ontario phase out its high-polluting, coal-fired power stations and lower greenhouse gas emissions by 30 million metric tons in 2009, the equivalent of taking 7 million cars off the road.
Ontario Environment Minister Laurel Broten said her province will not waver in its determination to close coal-fired generating stations — a course that most observers believe will require more nuclear power plants.
Currently, 50 percent of Ontario’s electricity comes from its nuclear operations, which have involved massive cost overruns (one plant that was supposed to cost C$2.5 billion ended up at C$14.3 billion) and expensive refurbishments.
In another blow to Kyoto, Ottawa axed a C$500 million, five-year program to help low-income households cope with high energy costs and cut greenhouse gas emissions.