02/07/2012 01:21 EST | Updated 04/08/2012 05:12 EDT

Harper Brings Carbon Take-Out to China

If the Northern Gateway pipeline is approved, Canada's emissions will rise. But roughly 70-80 per cent of the emissions won't show up on Canada's carbon account, but on China's, where the oil would be burned. And then we can criticize China's rising emissions during international climate talks as further justification for doing nothing but digging up tar sands as fast as possible.

It's been no secret that Prime Minister Harper's trip to China this week is by and large about selling tar sands oil. We're trying to make the Americans jealous, punishing them for President Obama's good decision to reject TransCanada's proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, by cuddling up to our new energy suitors overseas.

Whereas in the past, Canada and China have sparred over climate change, China's thirst for oil and Canada's desire to sell it seem to be papering over old differences. Our federal government has routinely pointed to China's absence from the Kyoto Protocol as the problem at international climate negotiations -- if they aren't going to do anything to reduce carbon pollution, neither will we -- while handily ignoring the fact that China is actually investing huge sums in clean energy technologies and is acting to meet its targets to reduce the carbon intensity of energy production, neither of which Canada can claim.

Then after years of Canada using China as cover for our own failure to act, the tables turned last December when China harshly criticized Canada's pullout from the Kyoto Protocol. The official Chinese news agency blasted Canada's decision as "preposterous" and "irresponsible" and a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry said "it is regrettable and flies in the face of the efforts of the international community for Canada to leave the Kyoto Protocol at a time when the Durban meeting, as everyone knows, made important progress by securing a second phase of commitment to the protocol."

The vitriol of this reaction was, in part, likely a result of the fact that China had agreed to do just what Canada has been calling for it to do -- take a binding commitment to cut carbon pollution -- and then Canada turned around and thumbed its nose at the whole process.

The reality is that Canada's bluff was called in December. Our failure to act to reduce carbon pollution has nothing to do with China or India and everything to do with the intention to radically expand the tar sands industry. Canada will not be able to do its fair share to cut carbon pollution if allowing a tripling of tar sands production.

This brings us back to Prime Minister Harper's trip. If Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline is approved, it will enable that expansion. If that expansion takes place, Canada's emissions will rise. But, most of the emissions (roughly 70-80 per cent) won't show up on Canada's carbon account, but on China's, where the oil would be burned. And then we can circle back to criticizing China's rising emissions during international climate talks, conveniently ignoring our role, as further justification for doing nothing but digging up tar sands as fast as possible.

Carbon isn't the only elephant in the room at this week's meetings. The push to convince China to buy our tar sands oil is premised on the approval and construction of Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline and tanker project. Yet that project faces significant hurdles, not the least of which is strong First Nation opposition.

The controversy around First Nations opposition to Northern Gateway followed Harper all the way to China this week, with the Yinka Dene Alliance, composed of five First Nations communities in central B.C., sending a Minister Oliver-style open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao on the eve of the visit raising concerns about the human rights issues related to Canada's treatment of Aboriginal Peoples in the Gateway process and more broadly. Whereas Canada used to stake out the moral high ground when it came to human rights, now we're at the centre of the controversy.