Oilsands To Determine Whether Canada Meets Its GHG Goals: Minister

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OTTAWA — Market conditions in the oil patch will largely determine whether Canada's emissions of greenhouse gases decline this year, says federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is poised to sign the Paris climate agreement later this week at the United Nations in New York, after making the fight against climate change a central theme of his new Liberal government.

But Trudeau carries with him to New York the latest official government inventory of Canadian carbon emissions, which shows a slow but steady increase from 2009 through 2014 — with no specified end date in sight.

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Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

While Canada contributes only about 1.6 per cent of global emissions, according to Environment Canada, it is among the highest per capita emitters on the planet.

"You're absolutely right, emissions are going up and they need to go down,'' McKenna told reporters following a two-hour appearance Tuesday at the Commons environment committee.

She could provide no assurances that the trajectory will change in the Liberals' first frenetic year in office.

"A lot of that will depend actually this year on the market,'' said McKenna.

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The Syncrude oilsands plant and tailings pond at their operation north of Fort McMurray, Alta. on Nov. 3, 2011. (Photo: Todd Korol/Reuters)

The McKenna-led Canadian delegation is widely credited with helping the international Paris conference find consensus last December on a goal to limit average global warming to less than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. She's now part of a government that's desperately trying to find a policy path to back up its aspirations.

Four federal-provincial working groups are examining policy areas and will report back next fall, after which provincial and territorial leaders will convene again with Trudeau to hammer out a pan-Canadian plan.

McKenna's two-hour grilling by opposition MPs at committee Tuesday was heavily larded with references to consultations with the provinces and only a few specifics.

The minister cited the recent agreement between Canada and the United States to cut methane emissions by 40 to 45 per cent over the next decade as "a big deal,'' the equivalent of taking all Ontario and Quebec cars off the road for a year.

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Gerard Mestrallet, Eigne CEO, chats with Catherine McKenna, Canada's minister of environment and climate change, at the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition Assembly during the IMF and World Bank Group 2016 Spring Meetings on April 15, 2016 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Molly Riley/AFP via Getty Images)

On Thursday, the government will launch a new web portal where Canadians can make suggestions about how to combat climate change and McKenna is promising that all the responses will be viewable in full on the site.

That could turn the exercise into a national version of the vitriolic flame wars that typify the comment boards below stories on news sites.

McKenna may have received a taste of what's to come when Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu asked one of those pointed questions that are impossible to answer: "What tangible temperature decrease do we expect to see from the billions of dollars being spent on climate change?''

Conservative Ed Fast wanted McKenna to explain how the Liberals will protect Canadian businesses from unfair foreign competition under McKenna's preferred option of carbon pricing.

New Democrat Nathan Cullen wanted to know why the first Liberal budget failed to address fossil fuel subsidies.

It's complicated and the government's looking at it, McKenna replied to both.

Outside the committee room, Cullen accused the Liberals of going to Paris and making commitments with no plan to back them up.

"It was this hopeful thing that the world celebrated, that many Canadians celebrated, but behind it was nothing,'' said the northern B.C. New Democrat.

Canada's formal ratification of the Paris deal won't come until after the first ministers meet again next fall, McKenna said.

"We want to go do the hard work to figure out how we can meet or exceed our current commitments and then we'll be in a position to ratify.''

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