The Canadian government will seek a North American climate change agreement with the new administration of U.S. president-elect Barack Obama, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said Wednesday.

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Newly appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon speaks to media following a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa last Thursday. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, Cannon said cutting greenhouse gases is a priority issue and will be communicated as such to the incoming Obama administration.

He added that Canadian officials are ready to start working on the file within weeks.

"We will be able to tackle this file on the North American level — on a continental level," he said.

"Over the coming weeks I know my colleague Jim Prentice, minister of the environment, will be active on that file. I see that in a positive light."

Both Canada and the U.S. have rejected targets set under the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

While the U.S. is not a signatory, Canada signed the protocol under the Liberal government. Canada has since been forced to renege on its obligations under Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government, which declared the targets dead last year. 

Instead, the Conservatives have said they plan to lower greenhouse gases three per cent from 1990 levels by 2020, or 20 per cent from 2006 levels over that same period.

Obama has established a similar goal of reducing greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020.

"There are a lot of similarities between the positions put forward and our position," Cannon said.

"This augurs well for a North American approach on environmental issues — specifically on climate change."

The Obama and Harper plans would rely in part on a cap-and-trade system.

"We've spoken about a cap-and-trade system, and, of course, we have been speaking about a cap-and-trade system on a North American basis, so some exciting opportunities," Prentice said Wednesday.

Conservatives waiting for Bush's successor

Officials told the Canadian Press that the Conservatives are waiting for the Obama government to take over from U.S. President George W. Bush before beginning work towards an integrated carbon market.

A cap-and-trade system would put strict limits on the amount of greenhouse gases industries can release. Polluters exceeding the caps would pay fees to those under their limits, without having to reduce their emissions.

A federal official with knowledge of the issue said the Harper government has been waiting for the arrival of Bush's successor before pushing a continental system similar to the one in Europe.

"We didn't want to go too tough on targets with Bush in the White House," said the federal official.

"Because then if they [Americans] didn't follow, it would place Canadian industry at a disadvantage."

An internal Environment Canada briefing prepared in April said Canada will seek a shared carbon market with the U.S. once Washington sets its own regulations.

"If a greenhouse-gas regulatory regime and offsets system is developed in the United States, cross-border trading in emissions credits and offsets will be pursued," the briefing said.

Several Canadian provinces are already working towards such a system.

In July, Ontario joined the Western Climate Initiative, a market-based cap-and-trade emissions program that already included Quebec, Manitoba, British Columbia and seven states in the U.S.

Expected to be in operation by 2010, the program has been criticized by Alberta and Saskatchewan as a cash grab.

With files from the Canadian Press