Earlier this month, the U.S. and China announced an agreement to significantly cut and cap their greenhouse gas emissions.
Not only does that give a big boost to the global momentum to tackle climate change, but it cranks up the international pressure on Canada ahead of the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 20), which opens today in Lima, Peru.
"They make [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper look increasingly isolated," said Simon Dalby, CIGI chair in the political economy of climate change at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ont.
At COP 20, a Canadian delegation led by Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq is joining policymakers from 195 countries to negotiate a legally binding international climate change agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol. The agreement is due to be signed at the COP 21 meeting in Paris next year.
A poll released this week shows a majority of Canadians are worried about the impact of climate change on future generations, and more than half support a carbon tax.
Harper and successive environment ministers have repeatedly said Canada would move on climate change when there was a commitment from "all major emitters" to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Canada has also indicated that it would follow the lead of the U.S.
Dalby says in light of the new China-U.S. agreement, Canada's lack of leadership and continued focus on developing the oilsands at the expense of other kinds of energy looks foolish.
"We're getting left behind badly in energy development," he said.
Canada will also have to play catch-up to the U.S. in finding ways to reduce its emissions to a comparable degree,as required to keep the two economies aligned and compatible, Dalby added.
"Right now it does not look like a sensible political strategy to hand over national decision-making to another state, although that seems like something Harper seems to have been quite happy to do for the last few years."
Nicholas Rivers, Canada Research Chair in Climate and Energy Policy, said that the new agreement puts us "further out of line" with the U.S.
"There's likely policy makers feeling some heat from this," he added.
'We're an outlier'
Greenhouse gas emissions, which are linked to global warming, are projected to keep rising in Canada, even as U.S. and Europe set targets and projections for declines.
"We're an outlier," Rivers said.
But he added that other countries are starting to exert pressure on Canada, through trade mechanisms such as the recent European Union plan to label oilsands crude as "dirty" – a plan it eventually dropped.
While the Canadian government has largely ignored that kind of noise so far, the provinces and industry are paying closer attention.
For example, Alberta's oil and gas industry has been calling for a carbon tax.
Rivers said the industry recognizes that given global concerns about climate change, a good domestic climate policy is necessary to provide the "social licence" to be able to sell Alberta's oil outside the country or even outside the province.
Meanwhile, the federal government's promised regulations for the oil and gas sector are three years behind schedule, says Scott Vaughan, president and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a public policy think tank. He is also the former federal environment commissioner.
The lack of federal action has prompted some provinces to implement their own policies, Vaughan says, adding, "You can only wait for so long."
Those policies include:- B.C.'s carbon tax, introduced in 2008, which has been praised for reducing emissions without hurting the economy.
- Alberta's version of carbon pricing, called the specified gas emitters regulation, which went into effect in 2007, and has proposed making them stricter.
- Quebec's cap and trade system, which went into effect in 2013.
- Ontario's phasing out of coal-fired power plants, and its discussions with Quebec and California about carbon pricing and trading.
"The boldest areas of policy experimentation are taking place in the provinces," Vaughan said.
Rivers says that while there is momentum building at the provincial level, regional initiatives are no substitute for federal policy action.
"We've got very, very incomplete coverage," he said. "What you'd like to see both for efficiency reasons and fairness and competitiveness reasons is a unified kind of framework across different provinces in Canada."
There is some indication that the federal government may be starting to budge.
Earlier in November, the federal government made a surprise $300-million pledge to the Green Climate Fund to help developing nations address climate change.
Dalby said that "suggests that we don't want to be completely left behind on this stuff."
Nevertheless, neither he nor Vaughan have high hopes for a big policy turnaround for Canada at COP 20.
"I wouldn't expect very much," Dalby says.
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