12/13/2011 07:38 EST | Updated 02/11/2012 05:12 EST

Canada MIA at Durban


The international community won't wait for Canada to get its climate change act together.

This became increasingly clear to me while I spoke to delegates at the COP17 conference in Durban on climate change, which I attended as the Official Opposition's deputy critic for the environment. During the Bali climate talks, a Papuan famously told the U.S. delegation to either "lead or get out of the way." It turns out that in Durban, this advice was relevant to Canada as well. From youth delegates staging peaceful protests inside and out of the plenary rooms to attendees walking out of official Canadian briefing sessions, scientists, activists and stakeholders expressed frustration at the fact that Canada was obstructing talks -- and their sentiments were well-founded.

It was our environment minister, after all, who threw the Durban negotiations into disarray by refusing to deny rumours that Canada would withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol completely. When, at an official public briefing session, I asked our lead negotiator to clarify Canada's position -- a clear yes or no as to whether Canada would withdraw -- he simply stated that there would be no "surprises" during the COP17 negotiations.

Luckily, Canada's inaction didn't stop global NGOs and labour groups from showing off impressive innovations that would pave the road to a clean-energy economy. I had the opportunity to meet a number of groups who understood that, in the 21st century, the strongest economies are those that invest in the environment. They came prepared with forward-thinking technology from human-powered electricity to solar-powered street lights. Countries, like Germany, which had significantly invested in renewable energy and innovative technologies, saw a surge in the creation of family-supporting jobs and progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I spoke to a senator from Australia (a resource-rich country that is not so different from Canada), who said that countries that want to stop "cutting down, boxing up, and shipping out" need to develop sophisticated economies by regulating greenhouse gas emissions and investing in the green economy.

Time for a side note: According to the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS), an increase of global temperatures by two degrees for Canada means that summer Arctic sea ice could be halved, runoff in the South Saskatchewan River basin reduced, and the cost of shipping through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway could rise due to lower water levels. The effect of a two degree rise in global temperatures on developing countries and small island states would be devastating.

After an extra day of talks, delegates finally came together on an agreement. However, under the new agreement, action will only be taken to reduce GHG emissions in 2020. This is a further delay which means that global temperatures will almost certainly rise to at least three degrees: a truly catastrophic level. By coming to an agreement, countries might have saved the furniture -- but the house is still burning down.

During the last stretch of negotiations, delegates spotted the Canadian minister of environment in the main plenary room, shut out of key end-game negotiations. The sight of the minister in the plenary room, while high-level talks were occurring elsewhere, was striking in its symbolic accuracy. Whatever happens down the line, it's clear that Canada's government will be on the outside, looking in. Durban proved once again that while other countries move forward on climate change, Canada is falling further and further behind.