Canada's sway at Paris climate talks will be modest, despite Trudeau's new vigour

Timing doesn't favour the new Canadian government as it approaches pivotal climate change talks in Paris later this month, hoping to exert more influence than its predecessor.

Environment ministers from various countries looking for common ground before Nov. 30 summit

Environment Minister sure Canada can sway Paris talks

8 years ago
Duration 16:04
Catherine McKenna says she's confident Canada will have a big impact at the Paris climate change summit

This column is part of a package of special coverage of climate change issues by CBC News leading up to the United Nations climate change conference (COP21) being held in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11.

The new Canadian government may be more eager than its predecessor to influence the outcome of pivotal climate talks later this month, but the timing isn't working in its favour.

Just three weeks remain before world leaders gather in the French capital to try to hammer out the latest global agreement on cutting emissions.

And while a more willing Canadian government is now coming to the table, the influence it wields in building consensus in such a short time will be modest.

More significantly for critics, the Canadian government will also arrive saddled with the modest emissions targets set by its predecessor.

A globe-like tent hosting an exhibition on climate is set up in the courtyard of the French Environment ministry ahead of the Nov. 30-Dec. 11 climate conference in Paris, France. Some 80 heads of state including U.S. President Barack Obama, and tens of thousands of other people, are expected in Paris for the conference opening. (Thibault Camus/Associated Press)

New targets will not be drawn up until well after the summit is over.

"We're going to be having a price on carbon and we're going to be reducing our emissions," Catherine McKenna, newly appointed environment and climate change minister, told CBC News in her first sit-down English TV interview.

"It's really important, but you can't do all of this at once. And we have to be realistic. 

"Canadians want us to have a plan that we're actually going to achieve and that requires some time."

Skeptics still wary of Canada

McKenna arrived in Paris today to join 70-odd counterparts in trying to smooth the ground for an agreement.

But then, she's only been in the job for five days.

Still, McKenna is the first Canadian minister to participate in the preparatory talks for Paris since they started; the predecessor government of Stephen Harper always sent lower-level officials.

As the first minister to travel abroad for the new government, she is also the first emissary to reflect Canada's changed tone on international affairs.

But she arrives following a decade of Canadian resistance to a global climate change deal, to the wary eye of many skeptics.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, has already signalled a new tack on the climate file by sending Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to Paris for pre-summit talks — the first minister of the new federal government to head abroad. But her influence over negotiations may be limited. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Even so, McKenna said she believes Canada can inspire other countries to give in a little more to make a deal happen.

"If Canada actually shows it's serious that it's back, that we understand that the science behind climate change is real, that we need to be taking action, that we need to be looking at what measures we can take to reduce emissions, I think that will send an extraordinarily strong signal," she said.

"Yes, you can say if only we had been around earlier, if only there had been a will by the Canadian government earlier. But in some ways it's good. We're here at a critical time." 

Framework 1st, targets next

Environmentalists believe Canada should withdraw or amend the modest emissions reduction targets set by the previous government.

Under Harper, Canada submitted those targets to the UN back in May: Reduce emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels by the year 2030. 

That target remains Canada's until a new one is set.

Trudeau, who will attend the Paris summit accompanied by provincial and territorial leaders, has promised to sit down with them within 90 days of the meeting to come up with a new national plan.

McKenna says Canada can show it's back on board with global efforts to fight climate change by, first of all, 'being engaged and at the table,' unlike the previous government. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

McKenna said the focus now is instead on achieving an international framework for reducing emissions. Then, Canada would "absolutely" look at how to meet the obligations once they are set.

"But the plan is to show we are committed to finding solutions, and the first way you do that is by being engaged and at the table. And so we are actively at the table even though it's such a short period of time," she said.

McKenna said she has seen part of the draft negotiating text but is still being briefed by officials.

One of the big sticking points is how to help developing countries cut their emissions and deal with the effects of global warming.

Officials say that's one tangible way that Canada is likely to contribute: putting money on the table.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.