OTTAWA – Anyone wondering why Canada, with its minuscule global carbon footprint, attracts so much international ire from environmentalists these days should listen to Avrim Lazar.
The former forest industry executive and one-time Environment Canada policy lead was part of a biodiversity seminar Tuesday at the University of Ottawa, where policy talk inevitably meandered over to climate change.
Lazar said a feeling of powerlessness is sapping motivation and he believes the problem lies in getting everyone in the global commons to contribute.
“It’s not the people that say there is no problem who are standing in the way of solutions,” Lazar told the assembled business, government, academic and student representatives.
“It’s the people who are saying there is no solution. That basically sucks the energy out of the necessary human action and initiative.”
A United Nations conference in Warsaw, Poland, is currently struggling to find an international consensus on a post-2020 framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Canada’s low-key Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq carried exceedingly low expectations to Warsaw this week, and indications are they’re being met.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged delegates at the conference Tuesday to “set the bar higher” as they work toward a 2015 summit in Paris where it is hoped the 2020 framework can be nailed down.
“Current pledges are simply inadequate,” the secretary general admonished the conference.
The Conservative government formally abandoned Canada’s commitments under the old Kyoto Protocol and Environment Canada confirmed last month that Canada is not close to being on track to meet its 2020 emissions target under the subsequent Copenhagen Accord. Aglukkaq has not indicated what Canada’s immediate post-2020 emissions targets might look like.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver was in London on Tuesday, where he continued to question a European Union fuel directive that paints Alberta’s oilsands bitumen as much more highly polluting than conventional sources.
Government officials have repeatedly noted that Canada contributes less than two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions; Oliver told reporters Tuesday in London that the “oilsands, which have become a symbol for some opponents, represent 0.1 per cent of global emissions.”
Back in Ottawa, Lazar suggested in an interview the statistic misses the point.
“Those who are furious with Canada’s performance, it’s not because they need our two per cent (of global GHG emissions),” he said. “The government’s quite right saying we’re only two per cent of the problem.”
The anger comes from Canada “reducing the global collectivity’s belief that if they act, others will act. It’s de-motivating. That’s the reason for the fury.”
“Each time someone says ‘I’m not going to step up,’ everyone else thinks there’s no point to my stepping up,” said Lazar.
His comments were not a political attack on the government. The university forum was devoid of partisan posturing and focused entirely on efforts to advance environmental policy.
A recurring theme was that industry is often out in front of government in seeking a regulatory regime or market signals that allow it to plan accordingly while being responsible environmental stewards.
Governments aren’t looking far enough ahead, said Stewart Elgie, an environmental law expert at the University of Ottawa.
“It’s not that they don’t want to do anything, it’s that governments are paralyzed by thinking that doing these things will ultimately hurt the economy and cost them votes,” said Elgie.
He called it backward thinking in a world where scarce environmental resources — water, climate, biodiversity — will be the drivers of business success in future.
Sandra Schwartz, vice-president of the Canadian Electricity Association, told the forum that her industry needs government direction — rules it can follow — in order to plan and operate.
Lazar put the issue in stark terms.
“Let’s not beat around the bush,” he told the forum.
“Do you think that Canada’s oilsands and pipeline industry would be meeting the degree of universal opposition they’re now meeting if people trusted government to regulate?”
Lazar was part of a movement that turned around the reputation of Canada’s forest industry as a international pariah in the 1990s by working with environmental groups and by highlighting government regulation.
“We used government regulation as a way of reassuring people who were skeptical of us,” he said. “You can’t do that with any great effect in the oil industry.”
“So yes, industry depends upon government doing its job. And when government doesn’t do it’s job, it’s not just the environmental community that’s disadvantaged.”