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Prime Minister Stephen Harper is greeted by Patrick Manning, prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, as he arrives at the Commonwealth meeting on Friday. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

The United Nations secretary general added his voice Friday to the chorus of activists trying to prod Canada into taking greater action on climate change.

Ban Ki-Moon said Canada, as the next country to host the G8 and G20 meetings, must pick up the pace in setting a mid-range goal to curb emissions.

"Many countries, developed and developing countries, have come out with ambitious targets," Ban said.

"And Canada, as one of the leading G8 countries, and G20, Canada is going to soon chair G8. Therefore, it is only natural that Canada should come out with ambitious targets as soon as possible."

Ban made the comments Friday night at the Commonwealth summit in Trinidad and Tobago, which is being attended by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other heads of government.

Ban also said an agreement is achievable at next month's meeting in Copenhagen to try to forge a deal to replace the Kyoto Protocol when that accord expires in 2012. By contrast, Harper and his ministers insist an agreement is not likely.

Calls to suspend Canada from Commonwealth

On Thursday, The Guardian newspaper reported that at least one scientist and several lobby groups were calling for Canada's suspension from the Commonwealth over its failure to meet goals for reducing greenhouse gases.

"If the Commonwealth is serious about holding its members to account, then threatening the lives of millions of people in developing countries should lead to the suspension of Canada's membership immediately," said Saleemul Huq, a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Other groups including the World Development Movement, the Polaris Institute and Greenpeace support the idea, according to The Guardian.

Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol in 2000, pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by six per cent from 1990 levels by the commitment period ending in 2012. By 2007, its emissions were 34 per cent above its reduction target.

December's global climate summit in Copenhagen has raised the temperature at what is usually a low-key meeting of leaders from Britain's former colonial empire.

Leaders of the 53-nation group, whose profile has waned in recent years, say they now have a chance to influence the global debate.

"What we can do is to raise our voices politically," said Prime Minister Patrick Manning of Trinidad and Tobago. "We feel can have some effect in influencing the discussions in Denmark."

Others apparently agree. This year's meeting has drawn leaders from outside the Commonwealth such as Ban, Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Manning has stressed to journalists that the leaders would not be negotiating the details of a climate treaty in their private meetings. Rather, they would be working out a statement that reflects a huge segment of world opinion, a quarter of the world's countries.

"A statement from countries as diverse as those that you find in the Commonwealth is a statement that would be much more reflective of [the] world than would otherwise be the case," he said.

Queen addresses delegates

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The Queen speaks during the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting on Friday. ((Andres Leighton/Associated Press))

Queen Elizabeth, the head of the Commonwealth, addressed the need for action on climate change in her opening remarks Friday.

"The threat to our environment is not a new concern but it is now a global challenge that will continue to affect the security and stability of millions for years to come," the Queen told delegates.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, also attending the meeting, has called for a strong statement warning of the economic and environmental dangers of letting climate change go unchecked.

Brown proposed a $17.5 billion Cdn fund as part of any Copenhagen agreement to help poorer countries reduce greenhouse gases and adapt to climate change.

Britain would contribute about $1.4 billion to the effort, which he said could help break the deadlock over emission cuts by reassuring poorer countries that they would receive help in making the transition.

"We have got to provide some money to help that," Brown said. "Britain will do so, the rest of Europe will do so and I believe America will do so as well."

Sarkozy is a surprising participant at the English-speaking meeting, but the French leader has been a vocal advocate for setting ambitious goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions at December's summit in Copenhagen. He was expected to hold separate private meetings with Brown and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The Commonwealth, established in 1949 and made up almost entirely of former British colonies, promotes democracy, good government and education.

Commonwealth needs more aggressive role: NGO

But the mission seems to be fading. A new report by the Royal Commonwealth Society, a non-governmental organization, said its polling found "members of the public are largely unaware of what the Commonwealth is or does" and called for a more aggressive role in international affairs. 

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, the director of the society, said he was pleased to see the heads of government focusing on climate change at such a key moment but fears the organization hasn't really changed — it's only tackling a relevant issue by coincidence.

The leaders who are coming to Trinidad, he said, are here this week because it's the largest gathering of leaders before Copenhagen.

"We deserve better than that," he said. "We aspire to be better than that as the Commonwealth family."

Those hoping for strong words on at least one human rights issue have already been disappointed.

Both Manning and Kamalesh Sharma, the secretary general of the Commonwealth, declined to condemn a proposed law in Uganda that imposes life imprisonment for homosexual acts and the death penalty for having homosexual sex while HIV positive. The law also sets prison terms for people who do not report known acts of homosexuality.

Manning declined comment, saying it was an internal matter, while Sharma said he hoped the bill would be changed before the Ugandan parliament takes a final vote on it.

"We must show our faith that this is a process which is going to deliver in the end the appropriate result," he said.

With files from The Associated Press