Harper to polish Canada's image in Big Apple, faces climate change questions

OTTAWA - If it’s Tuesday, it must be climate change.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper kicks off a string of international meetings Tuesday that will address climate change, trade relations with New York, peace in Pakistan and recovery from the global financial crisis. But before he can launch into one of his favourite topics, boasting to his G20 colleagues about Canada’s strong banking system and comparatively moderate recession, he’ll face scrutiny on his low-profile climate change stance.

The prime minister will be one of about 25 leaders invited by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday to talk about the environment, in the hopes of finding common ground before countries meet in Copenhagen in December to sign a new global climate change treaty.

Harper has been largely silent on what a new treaty should look like. Senior government officials emphasized the need to co-operate “closely” with the White House on climate change. But the United States has been roundly criticized for not addressing climate change adequately, and a proposal to limit greenhouse gas emissions has been bogged down in the Senate.

And well before leaders arrive in Copenhagen, the question of how to pay for cutting greenhouse gases, especially in developing countries, will need some answer.

Ban has said the climate change summit, which will include China’s president, Hu Jintao, should not be a negotiating session, and should act as a show of support for forging a solid deal in December.

But it will set the tone for the Group of 20 leaders’ summit at the end of the week in Pittsburgh, where countries will attempt to agree on how much money rich countries should give developing countries to cut their greenhouse gases.

Canadian officials would not say how big they think the fund should be, but appeared to back the U.S. argument that the money should come mainly from the private sector, by handing over the proceeds of permits sold under cap-and-trade systems that have yet to be developed.

“It’s really hard slogging on climate finance,” said John Kirton, director of the G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto.

Harper will also meet with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Tuesday, a meeting his officials described mainly as a “courtesy call” that will highlight Canada’s ample trade with the city and surrounding state.

He’ll return to New York on Thursday, this time for a meeting with other leaders involved in the relatively new Friends of Democratic Pakistan. The group includes U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, and was set up last year to bolster aid and development in Pakistan.

Investors and people concerned about the economy will be more focused on the Pittsburgh meetings at the end of the week, and government officials have been far more forthcoming about Ottawa’s hopes for this meeting than the others.

In addition to climate change, the Group of 20 talks are expected to focus on how best to remove stimulus measures and banking supports without undermining the still-fragile economic recovery.

Canada will argue for a “stay the course” approach, said Dimitri Soudas, the prime minister’s spokesman. Harper wants to see countries carefully design exit strategies that would see a gradual withdrawal of stimulus from economies around the world, but doesn’t want to see that withdrawal happen too quickly.

The fear is that a “rush for the exits” during a fragile recovery could easily set off yet another round of global financial crisis, Kirton said.

And the fear is real, since Japan’s new prime minister has signalled that he is poised to cancel some key spending initiatives, just as many economists warn about the possibility of a double-dip in growth.

Despite his frequent appearances on the global scene this week, Harper will not address the UN General Assembly. Instead, he is sending Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon to handle Canada’s speech on Friday.

Harper did participate in the high-profile event in 2006, but not in 2007 or 2008. His officials explained Monday that Harper will be busy at the Pittsburgh summit, and Cannon is just as able to deliver Canada’s message.


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