On Thursday of this week Barack Obama will make his first visit to a foreign country as President of the United States.  Travelling north to Ottawa, Canada to meet with Prime Minister Harper, Obama is once again honouring a long held tradition of newly elected US Presidents (President Bush broke with tradition by visiting Mexico first).


While only lasting a couple of hours, Obama’s meetings on February 19 with Canadian politicians will primarily be about the economy, but will also include a number of other agenda items including energy and climate change policy.

Given the new President’s massive approval ratings in Canada (surveys have indicated that the Canadian public is very supportive of Obamaliking him more than their own leaders) it is very important for the Canadian government to appear to be on side with Obama’s green mission and the potential of a newly engaged America on the environment and climate change file.

Canadian policy makers have anticipated Obama’s visit and have gone to the media to demonstrate that they are on board with the new US President’s green policies.  While on the one hand cozying up to Obama by supporting the creation of a North America wide cap-and-trade-system for greenhouse gases, the Canadian Government is also claiming independence in climate policy.  Environment Minister, Jim Prentice recently wrote the following in a letter to the editor in Canada’s largest paper, The Toronto Star:

It is misleading to suggest that our approach to climate change is being led by the United States…..It has always been our plan…to move to a hard cap-and-trade regime. It has also been our intention to forge an immediate relationship with the new U.S. administration to address climate change, and we are committed to working to develop and implement a North America-wide cap-and trade-system for greenhouse gases.”

The elephant in the room, previously discussed in this space, is the Canadian tar sands.  During the meeting this week Prime Minister Steven Harper, who hails from Canada’s oil rich province of Alberta, will be keen to press upon the US President the importance of tar sand crude for North American energy security. The Canadian Government is well aware of comments made by Obama`s staff during his campaign about so-called `dirty oil` not being appropriate for import into the USA.  Canada`s ambassador to the US, Michael Wilson recently identified that one of the Canadian government’s largest challenges when dealing with Obama`s administration will be the reputation of delivering dirty oil to the US.  Canadian politicians are certainly keen to ensure that Canadian tar sands get special recognition under any North American wide system to regulate greenhouse gases.  The Province of Alberta has even gone so far as to demand that it be included in any future discussions about North American climate policy.

President Obama’s visit this week brings into focus comparisons of Canadian and American climate policy and will inevitably lead to further discussions regarding the integration of North American climate and energy policy.  But just how close are the two nations policies? And how realistic is it that they would be able to be easily harmonised?

Analysis by the Pembina Institute suggests that US and Canadian climate policies are significantly out of sync.  Starting with a comparison of green economic stimulus incentives, Obama’s investments in green energy and energy efficiency are about 5 times greater per person than Canadian investments ($84  billion in the US economic stimulus compared with $1.657 billion in the recent Canadian budget).  On regulatory mechanisms Prime Minister Harper has put forward ‘intensity-based’ targets on industrial emissions (which allow for absolute emissions increases) while President Obama will enact ‘hard caps’ on emissions.

Some similarities do exist, both Canadian and American per capita emissions are about 23 tonnes per person (according to figures from 2005) and reduction targets are similar.  Harper has pledged to cut 2006 emissions by 20% by 2020, while comparable US pledges under Obama total about 15%.  So while Canada’s emissions targets may actually be steeper than the US targets, as these countries work towards establishing a North American wide system to tackle greenhouse gases really what matters is effective implementation.  As of now Obama’s environmental actions in the last 3 weeks are getting more attention than the Canadian government’s actions in the last 3 years.

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