Why this year’s UN climate negotiations matter

In other words, Byrne is one of the people we have to thank for the dumbing down of our political discourse at the federal level, where Question Period has become a bad joke. No matter the question lobbed at a government minister in the House, odds are the response will be an attack on the opposition, more often than not a denunciation of the so-called “job-killing carbon tax.”

Last week, for example, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt started his response to a question about food security in the North like this: “Mr. Speaker, I cannot help but add that if they were able to impose this carbon tax, it would be even colder….”

Far from getting colder, the planet has been heating up — with the effects of global warming especially visible in the Arctic — while governments like Harper’s have demonized and obstructed basic measures such as putting a price on carbon.

In exactly six months, the United Nations climate summit will be getting underway in Paris, France. Under Stephen Harper, Canada has been a pariah state at these international meetings, repeatedly taking home the “Fossil of the Year” award given out by environmental groups to countries blatantly obstructing meaningful climate action. This year’s UN gathering is the most anticipated since Copenhagen in 2009, which ended in disaster. In Paris the stakes are even higher, and the scientific consensus is that serious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is more urgent than ever.

We don’t yet know whether it will be Stephen Harper, Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau leading Canada by the time the Paris talks start, but even if Harper is ousted in the election, his government can do a lot of damage to the international negotiations in the lead-up to December’s meeting.

Reports suggest that’s exactly what our government is up to within the G7. With the group of industrialized nations set to begin its annual summit on Sunday, this year’s host Germany warned that the Harper government could undermine efforts on the road to Paris. In an interview with CBC News, Germany’s ambassador to Canada implied that the Harper government’s commitment to the tar sands would get in the way of the global community’s efforts to “decarbonize.”

“By the mid-term of the century we should come to a point where economic growth can work without the emission of carbon,” said Wnendt, pointing out that Germany is trying to cut its carbon emissions by up to 95 per cent by 2050.

But the idea of decarbonization could be a non-starter for Canada, a country that is both an a big producer and consumer of fossil fuels.

Observers say Canada and Japan are working hard behind the scenes to stop that promise from appearing in the final G7 declaration.

“They are negotiating quite hard to have the language blocked,” said Jennifer Morgan, global director of the climate program at the World Resources Institute.

Canada’s obstructionist role on climate change action in the G7 is no surprise.

The Harper government belatedly announced carbon reduction targets on May 15, a month and a half after the deadline. Environmental groups were not impressed. “Canada’s opening pledge for the Paris climate summit is the weakest in the G7, and will further cement Canada’s global reputation as a climate laggard,” states a blistering response by Canadian NGO Environmental Defence. “Canada needs to significantly strengthen its commitments in order to not be left behind in global climate commitments and clean energy opportunities.”

Like a broken record, the Conservatives reflexively condemn the “job-killing carbon tax,” even as the oil price shock has pummeled the Canadian economy, and as evidence mounts of the job creation potential of shifting off of fossil fuels. Here’s what a landmark study released earlier this year on the impact of Europe’s proposed emissions cuts concluded:

A 40% emissions cut by 2030, compared to 1990 levels … will bring real benefits, including 70,000 full-time jobs, the prevention of around 6,000 pollution-related deaths, and a €33bn cut in fossil fuel imports.

But if emissions were slashed by around 55% – the study’s proposed route for holding global warming to two degrees – those benefits would multiply to $173bn fuel savings, 420,000 full-time clean energy jobs and 46,000 lives saved, its authors say.

These numbers give us a sense of the opportunity cost of subsidizing the tar sands while not investing in renewable energies.

It also turns out that the oil price drop could have been even worse for the Canadian economy. An internal Department of Finance memo obtained by CBC News under access to information legislation and released yesterday estimates that the economic impact of a drop in oil prices on the Canadian economy will be lessened by the fact that between 40 and 50 per cent of the tar sands is foreign-owned. This contradicts the government’s own claims that only 37 per cent of the tar sands is owned by foreign investors.

Decarbonization is going to happen, sooner or later. It’s just a matter of whether we are able to shift off of fossil fuels quickly enough.

Fortunately the political ground is finally shifting. Last month, of course, there was the shocking election victory of the Alberta NDP. Careful to pledge to work with the oil industry, the government of Rachel Notley also committed to sustainable development and a new relationship with First Nations. We’ll see how that contradiction is worked out, but the point is that the dig-it-up-ship-it-out-and-demonize-anyone-who-raises-concerns approach epitomized by the Harper government over the past decade is fast going out of style.

Even the CEO of Suncor is changing his tune, effectively saying “bring it on” to the prospect of a carbon tax: “We think climate change is happening. We think a broad-based carbon price is the right answer.”

Now it’s true that Suncor execs have their own reasons for getting out in front of the idea of a carbon tax and making sure it’s not too punitive and focused on their interests. But the fact that the CEO feels the need to adopt this stance shows that times have changed.

For Harper and his backroom, the downside of extreme message discipline is that sometimes you end up repeating outdated talking points and sounding ridiculous. The Conservatives’ anti-carbon-tax talking point is a fossil of a bygone time when climate change denialism and do-nothing-ism had wider appeal.

Since the G7 operates on consensus, Harper will likely succeed in watering down the language on climate change at this month’s summit in Germany. As for the much anticipated Paris summit in December, Canada has no chance of playing a positive role unless we elect a new government this fall.