Can Canada avoid the Fossil Award at UN climate talks?

Canada's new government has a chance to polish our damaged reputation at the upcoming UN climate talks in Paris.

There are high expectations for Canada at the upcoming Paris climate talks: Bob McDonald

Developing nations that rely on coal for power generation say the language produced at the UN climate talks in Lima, Peru, let rich nations off the hook. (Canadian Press file photo)

Canada has earned a poor reputation at recent UN climate talks, winning the Fossil Award many years in a row for our inaction on climate change. Our new federal government, with promises of positive action and a very strong team, has a chance to clear our reputation.

Canada has the dubious distinction of winning the Fossil of the Day, Fossil of the Year, and the Lifetime Unachievement Fossil Award from Climate Action Network, an international NGO involving 110 countries that works to promote government and individual action to fight human-induced climate change.

For five years in a row, these awards were given to our country for being the only nation to pull out of the Kyoto Accord, lowering our emissions targets, reducing climate monitoring programs, cutting climate research, and increasing development of the Alberta oil sands.  Some have even accused Canada of using stalling and delay tactics at the climate summit talks.

This is a complete turn of events for Canada, because we were once considered a leader in promoting action on climate change.

In fact, the decision to establish the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was made at a climate summit held in Toronto in 1988.

At this month's summit in Paris, Canada will be represented by a new government that has promised to take positive action, including a new environment ministry that now includes the words "Climate Change" in its title — and a team of ministers and cabinet members who actually understand the science.

Catherine McKenna is the new federal minister of environment and climate change. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)
Kirsty Duncan, the new Minister of Science, for example, is a former climatology professor and a member of the IPCC team that won the Nobel Peace Prize for climate science in 2007. 

Stéphane Dion, former Minister of the Environment and now Minister of Foreign Affairs, has been a climate advocate for decades.

And Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment AND Climate Change, has been a legal advisor on international treaties.

It is important for politicians to understand the science of climate change, because it's a complicated subject and there is a lot of misleading information out there from special interest groups, designed to sway the political and public will away from taking positive action.

The delegation will have a lot of work to do polishing up Canada's tarnished reputation — not just in willingness to negotiate and sign agreements, but to actually putting words into action. That means restoring funds for climate research, allowing scientists to speak freely about their work, tougher laws for pollution, ending subsidies for dirty technologies, tax incentives for the clean ones - a long list of actions that could make a real difference in slowing down the steady warming of the atmosphere. And all this while trying to balance the environment with the economy.

That's a tall order.

On the global scale, when it comes to total carbon emissions, Canada is actually a small player compared to countries such as China and the United States. But as a G8 country, our inaction in the past set a bad example for a country that has the brain-power and technology to do our part.

The Trudeau Government will be the new kids on the block in Paris, so perhaps the Fossil Award will be held back this year in the hope that real change will come about, and that Canada will once again become a leader in dealing with climate change rather than an embarrassment.  

Perhaps the next time Canada wins a "Fossil Award," it might be for our fabulous collection of dinosaur bones in Alberta.

About the Author

Bob McDonald

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.