In the 10 months since Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government was elected, Canada's international reputation as an environmental champion, which had started slipping in the last years of the Liberal regime, has plunged to the point where we are now seen in many parts of the world as a rogue state in the fight against global warming.
The low point occurred this week when Canada was censured with the "fossil of the day" award for the second day running by a coalition of environmental groups at the United Nations conference on climate control, being held in Nairobi, Kenya. A second group ranked Canada 52nd out 56 countries - just ahead of Kazakhstan and the United States - in its efforts to combat the Number 1 threat to the planet.
Environment Minister Rona Ambrose now finds herself on the hot seat in Nairobi, where delegates from 189 countries are meeting to discuss targets and timetables for continuing the fight against climate change after the Kyoto Protocol comes to an end in 2012.
Ambrose and the Conservatives are not entirely to blame for Canada's failure to make any progress on global warming. Indeed, instead of declining by 6 per cent as required by Kyoto, Canada's greenhouse gas emissions are actually up by about 30 per cent. That's the fault of the Liberal governments of Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.
But the reason why Canada is now rightly under attack is the Harper government's pre-emptive action to take Canada out of the global negotiations over post-Kyoto targets and timetables with its new Clean Air Act, which sets an unambitious target to be met 44 years from now.
Without a much more concerted and urgent effort by all countries to slash their emissions before then, the world could face an environmental calamity of unparalleled proportions. A recent study by Britain's chief economist predicts that by 2050, melting polar ice, rising sea levels, heavier floods, a growing scarcity of water and more intense droughts could leave a staggering 200 million people displaced unless action is taken.
Despite overwhelming evidence of human actions on climate change, Harper and Ambrose have opted to do little.
But it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, with their majority of seats in the Commons and their collective support for the Kyoto process, the opposition Liberals, New Democrats and the Bloc Quebecois could - and should - completely rewrite the Tories' Clean Air Act. In doing so, they can give it both teeth and the urgency it needs to make up for lost time.
By working together and forcing the Conservatives to go along with their proposals or face the wrath of voters in the next election, the three parties can propel Canada back to being an environmental champion.
One of their first tasks, though, is to tell Canadians honestly about the personal sacrifices they will have to make in order to lower significantly Canada's greenhouse gas emissions. Ottawa lacks a true estimate of the economic impacts of meeting our Kyoto targets. One study by Environment Canada some five years ago conservatively estimated the cost of meeting our Kyoto targets at about $100 a person a year.
In rewriting the Conservatives' plan, the opposition parties should tackle the hard issues, such as possibly imposing hefty increases in gasoline taxes to fund climate control projects and force motorists to conserve. In Europe, for example, gasoline costs twice as much as in Canada. Or they should consider huge taxes on gas-guzzling SUVs, vans and pickup trucks, coupled with tax incentives to encourage drivers to switch to hybrid cars.
Or they could close coal-fired plants and actively push alternative sources of energy such as wind. The fact is that clean power costs more than dirty power, and the sooner Canada incorporates that premium into its price structure, the faster investments in clean technology will be made.
With creative and courageous policies, either in the rewriting of the existing Clean Air Act or in a private member's bill, the opposition parties can take the lead on this critical file. The alternative is talk and no action from the Conservatives, who know that talk is cheap.
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