Stephen Harper surprised a lot of people when he said Canada's soon-to-be-announced target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions beyond 2020 will not be the same as the U.S.

It was an abrupt end to the Conservatives' long-held position that the energy sector is a continental industry, so reducing climate changing emissions likewise requires a continental approach.

But to those who follow the political environment in Ottawa, falling out of lockstep with the Americans is a simple case of reality finally overtaking rhetoric.

That reality is the U.S. will meet its existing target of reducing emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels. Canada will not.

Cue the critics.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau accused Harper of hiding behind the Americans on climate change. And then the Americans moved and exposed him.

Trudeau told reporters this week that the prime minister's attitude is "we can't go and do something when the United States doesn't act, and when the U.S. acts, then it's 'Oh no, we can't act like the United States.'"

"This government has no desire to actually be responsible on the environment, no understanding that acting responsibly on the environment is actually the only way to build a strong economy in the 21st century."


The Conservatives have always argued that Canada is too small and its resource sector too important to set targets that are out-of-whack with the Americans.

Canada Keystone XL Pipeline

Joining with the Americans on emissions control was part of a tacit deal to gain presidential approval of the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. (The Associated Press)

And that was true, to a point, even if that's a bit like the owner of a gas-guzzling Humvee arguing he shouldn't have to reduce his gas consumption because far more people drive Hondas.

Aligning Canada with the U.S. on environmental rules helped prevent companies in this country from being put at a competitive disadvantage.

It also became a bargaining chip with the Americans, as CBC News first reported, when Harper wrote U.S. President Barack Obama in late 2013 proposing "joint action in the oil and gas sector" if that's what it would take to get a presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.

Nothing came out of the letter. And now that Obama has announced the U.S.will reduce emissions by as much as 28 per cent by 2025, Harper conceded last week that Canada's targets will not be exactly the same but will be "of similar levels of ambition to other major industrialized countries.''

Just who those countries are isn't clear either, as governments around the world roll out new GHG targets in advance of December's UN summit in Paris, where international negotiators will try to conclude another treaty on climate change.

Or, as skeptics would say, to go where Kyoto and Copenhagen fell short.

At the bottom of the pile

The Europeans are well on their way to substantially cutting emissions in advance of that summit. Now the Americans say they are, too.

"When we aligned on targets it seemed like smart politics at the time," says David McLaughlin, a former chief of staff in the Harper government and one-time head of the now defunct National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy.

"But it was pretty dumb economics because of the differences in the energy systems."

McLaughlin and others argue that it's both easier, and cheaper, for the U.S. to cut emissions beyond 2020 by simply replacing its abundant coal-powered electrical generation with natural gas or renewable energy sources.

Canada, on the other hand, produces far more clean energy primarily from hydro. But our national GHG emissions remain stubbornly high, primarily because of the energy-intensive development of Alberta's oilsands.

Regardless, "whatever the new commitment is, we are not on track to meet the old one,'' says Jeffrey Phillips, managing director of the consulting firm Dawson Strategic, who served as a senior policy adviser on energy issues in the federal department of natural resources until 2013.

Phillips says the only way to have any real reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is to drastically scale back oilsands production, and that's not going to happen.

"So whatever the prime minister announces about emission targets, it will put us at the bottom of the pile with Japan and, probably, Australia.''

Election year calculus

Tsunami-hobbled Japan recently announced it will reduce emissions by 25 per cent, but moved its starting point from 2005 levels to 2013 levels. Australia, like Canada, hasn't announced its new targets.


Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, left, and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard agreed on a plan for Ontario on to join Quebec and California in North America's largest cap-and-trade system. Federal Conservatives oppose what they call "a tax on everything." (The Canadian Press)

Conservative insiders say the U.S. targets sound great, but mean little, because Obama has no hope of getting them through the Republican-dominated Congress.

They see the Paris UN conference as a kind of reset to climate negotiations, and Harper will continue to argue Canada will do its part if the world's biggest emitters — China, Russia and the U.S. — step up with real targets.

China, for example, has agreed to cap its emissions by 2030, but not reduce them, and to increase the use of renewable energy to 20 per cent by 2030.

Harper, one suspects, is far less worried about how world leaders will respond when he announces Canada's climate change targets than he is about how it will play with Canadians.

He's portrayed any attempt to put a price on carbon — including his party's once-stated policy of curtailing emissions through what's called cap and trade — as a tax on everything.

So, in the run-up to Paris the calculation for the prime minister is, to put it bluntly, what political price will his Conservatives pay for not taking action on climate change in an election year, when his opponents argue they intend to do much more.