Since taking office in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has focused on turning Canada into an energy superpower. The strategy behind this is the proposed doubling of the extraction of oil from Canada’s bituminous tar sands, located primarily in the western province of Alberta.
Tar sands in Alberta. Creator: Dru Oja Jay, Dominion. This image is licensed under Creative Commons License.
The Conservative Party of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in power since 2007, may well be voted out of office at the Canadian federal election to take place on October 19––at least that is the hope of global climate advocates. Not only does Canada rank ninth in the list of the world’s worst polluters, it is now also the world’s highest per capita GHG emitter. The culprit is the economic growth strategy pursued by the Harper government over the last nine years. Since taking office in February 2006, Harper has focused on turning this northern country on the edge of the Arctic––which possesses the third largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela––into an energy superpower. The strategy behind this––burn, baby, burn––is the proposed doubling of the extraction of oil from Canada’s bituminous tar sands, located primarily in the western province of Alberta, from the current 2.1 million to 5 million barrels of oil per day.
For the distribution and export of this dirty, marginal oil––the extraction of which only became profitable through modern production technologies, the global commodities boom and rising global crude oil prices––the Harper government has been pushing a number of massive oil pipeline projects for years. The most internationally known of these projects is the Keystone XL Pipeline, which is to pump Canadian oil to Texas and which has been waiting for the approval of the U.S. government for years. In order to secure these projects at home, the Conservative government, since taking office, has systematically undermined Canada’s existing environmental legislation. Domestic opponents of this strategy––environmentalists, local activists and representatives of aboriginal First Nations––have been declared enemies of the state and are being monitored by the secret service. In addition, significant budget cuts throughout the Harper years have weakened the Canadian Department of the Environment, particularly its offices focusing on climate change and air protection, to such a degree that the party leader of the Canadian Green Party Elizabeth May mused that the Canadian environment assessment regime would be “a laughing stock in a developing country.”
The Canadian tar sands expansion promoted by the Harper government was also the main reason behind Canada’s exit in December 2011 from the Kyoto Protocol––to date the only international climate agreement with binding emission reduction targets––since it became clear that the country could not keep its commitment to reduce emissions by 2012 by six percent compared to 1990. In fact, only a year after its exit, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions were already 23 percent above the Kyoto target. In 2013, the Harper government then also withdrew––so far the only nation to have done so––from the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which was back home seen as a “turning your back on the world community.” Canadian critics such as Maude Barlow from the Council of Canadians jeered that the UNCCD exit is at least consistent since “Anything that [the Harper government is] involved in that can lead to more evidence that we’re a planet in crisis environmentally [it doesn’t] want to be part of.” Internationally, Canada is now, along with Australia, Japan and Russia, considered to be a “major climate laggard” and as an obstacle to constructive climate negotiations. This group of “climate pariahs” is, according to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, playing “poker with the planet and the lives of future generations.” According to Canadian press reports, Canada and Japan even collaborated feverishly behind the scenes at the G7 summit in Germany in June in order to water down the climate passage in the G7 statement, thereby foiling Chancellor Merkel’s ambitious G7 agenda. Against that backdrop, the surprising promise of the Harper government to inject 300 million Canadian dollars into the new Green Climate Fund (GCF) comes almost as a miracle––or is the exception that proves the rule.
For years, Prime Minister Stephen Harper sought to justify Canada’s low climate targets by claiming that Canada needed to, due align its climate and energy policies with those of the neighbor to the south to its symbiotic economic linkages with the United States. For example, at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, Canada pledged to reduce emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2020––which corresponded to the reduction target of the United States. Incidentally, that target also meant falling significantly short of fulfilling the Canadian Kyoto promise. Benchmarked against the current climate and energy laws and regulations (and without any significant tightening of these), Canada’s emissions by 2020 will be a whole 26 percent above the Kyoto value. In that calculation, the proportion of air pollutants generated by tar sands oil extraction is continually growing, and is estimated to possibly account for 14 percent of Canada’s total pollutant emissions by 2020. Canadian climate change goals and ambitions are therefore inextricably intertwined with the Canadian tar sands issue. In the United States, John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, underlined Canada’s “excessive emissions” and prompted it to do more to “compensate for its exploitation of the carbon intensive tar sands.”
Overall, Canadian public opinion on climate change has been relatively stable for a number of years, with more than 60 percent of all respondents expressing concern about climate change and demanding, or hoping, that governments (both federal and provincial) implement new standards and regulations for climate protection. However, whether Canadians’ concern for the environment, which is higher, percentage-wise, than that of the U.S. population, will be reflected in the actual votes at the upcoming election is uncertain––especially since that concern did not prevent them from voting Stephen Harper into office at the last two federal elections in Canada, in 2008 and 2011.