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Canada serious about environment, Harper tells skeptical Europe

Dogged by continuing questions over the Maxime Bernier resignation, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stopped off in Bonn, Germany, Wednesday to speak to a UN biodiversity conference on the latest leg of a three-day tour of Europe.

Dogged by continuing questions over the Maxime Bernier resignation, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stopped off in Bonn, Germany, Wednesday to tell a United Nations biodiversity conference that Canada is serious about environmental protection.

Harper is on the second day of a three-day tour of Europe, with environmental issues at the centre of the agenda. Most European countries are wary of Canada's mixed record on the Kyoto Protocol for greenhouse gas emissions, with far more political and public support for reductions in Europe than is generally found in this country.

Before he left, some environmentalists criticized the prime minister's trip for its own greenhouse gas emissions.

They say the air travel involved in taking Harper's retinue to several European cities in three days will generate more than 400 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, as much as 100 cars produce in a year.

But Harper and his officials say expressing Canada's position on climate change is crucial, as well as discussing this country's booming trade with Europe, worth some $110 billion in the past year.

Speaking to UN delegates in Bonn, Harper said Canada was the first industrialized country to ratify a biodiversity treaty in 1992, and that this country took a varied approach to environment protection, involving all sectors of society, and not just government.

"Canada has gone to great lengths to protect and preserve our rich and diverse environment," Harper said in Bonn. "In our country, this is not just a government enterprise. We are partnered with many private individuals, corporations and non-governmental organizations dedicated to environmental philanthropy."

CBC's chief political correspondent, Keith Boag, travelling with the prime minister, said there was little about the address that was new in policy terms.

"The speech was really just a once-over-lightly about how beautiful Canada is," Boag said. "How many lakes and rivers and streams and mountains and forests and fields and so on [the country] has."

The Bernier resignation is still very much on the mind of the prime minister and officials and journalists travelling with him, Boag said.

Canada could do more: environmentalists

Environmental groups at the Bonn meeting say there is sometimes more words than substance to Canada's positions on biodiversity and other environmental issues.

William Jackson with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said Canada can be proud of its domestic achievements in environmental protection, but its international role in holding up agreements on issues like climate change has raised eyebrows.

"I have not seen Canada blocking things to the point [that] decisions are not being made," Jackson says, "but I've seen them expressing their views strongly."

Federal Environment Minister John Baird, who is with Harper, dismissed accusations Wednesday that Canada isn't doing enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Baird said the Canadian government  actions include regulating big polluters, a hydrogen initiative in B.C., encouragement of carbon capture and storage efforts, an electricity grid between Ontario and Manitoba and support for tidal power generation in the Maritimes.

Harper was hoping to convince European leaders that his plan for fighting greenhouse gases is a good one, despite criticism from environmentalists.

Unlike most of Europe, Canada and the U.S. oppose any new climate change pact that would exclude major polluters, such as China or India.

Harper is using this trip to lay the groundwork for the upcoming G8 meeting this summer in Japan, which will focus on climate change.

On Wednesday in Bonn, Harper is also meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The two leaders pledged last year to increase co-operation between their two countries on a range of issues, including environmental policy and trade.

Harper's next stop will be Rome for meetings with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi before travelling to London where he has meetings scheduled with the Queen and his British counterpart, Gordon Brown, as well as a speech to business leaders at the Canada-United Kingdom Chamber of Commerce.

With files from the Canadian Press