Yes We Can!

The euphoria that swept the world following the election of Barack Obama as the next President of the United States carried with it the hope that something tangible would finally come to pass on the environmental front.  And Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Environment Minister Jim Prentice were quick to place our nation’s expectations on President-elect Obama’s “Yes We Can” environmental agenda.

In an early and perhaps bold move, the Prime Minister placed a ’continental approach’ for the management of green issues on the table and made clear Canada’s position that the environment, energy and the economy were part of one seamless equation.

It was a smart move, in some respects, as America’s strength in international negotiations on issues of strategic importance has always rested on its power to set the agenda and the terms of the negotiations.

Some commentators have suggested Canada holds a winning hand because of its vast supplies of energy (electricity, oil and natural gas) and that America’s insatiable appetite for energy, preferably from friendly, non-Middle Eastern regimes, means that  concerns about the high environmental impacts associated with Alberta’s much maligned oil sands would be ignored.

Thankfully political leaders both in Ottawa and Washington realize this won’t fly.  Re-framing both energy and climate change in a North American context prepares the ground for a more mature relationship between our countries on these issues - but it must be coupled with serious strategies that lower the impacts of how energy is produced.

Canada needs to help US decision makers understand that we contribute 82% of US natural gas imports, 100% of US electricity imports and 18% of US petroleum imports. These facts are little understood in the US and therefore not yet an issue of prime concern to the incoming Obama administration.  However, that hand can’t be overplayed since Canada has few alternatives for the export of these resources. We can’t even ship Alberta oil to Eastern Canada or get Manitoba hydro into Ontario, let alone sell it to another customer.

President-elect Obama will use every lever available to him to deliver on his campaign pledge to promote renewable energy for American consumers. Clean energy has become part of an economic stimulation and job growth strategy for his first term. This synergy means that the political currency of these issues will endure and become a link to strategies for moving forward on climate change - domestically and internationally.

A North American climate change agreement and a unified ’cap and trade’ emissions management regime makes good sense, not least because it sets the same rules for our industries but could well forestall trade barriers for globally competitive products.

As anyone who watched Obama’s acceptance speech should know, the status quo is not an option. Change is the order of the day, and that change will most assuredly affect Canada’s environmental agenda.

The government has signalled that they are ready to consider a new conversation, one that could mean real progress on a variety of fronts that have been stymied for the past eight years under the Bush-Cheney leadership.

Change is coming and that will also involve Canadian industry doing more to mitigate environmental impacts of the oil sands exploitation.  The Alberta government has acknowledged this with a $2B investment to stimulate carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects - and the oil industry is exploring the options.

The ’environment = energy = economy’ equation means that everything is on the table and that we cannot negotiate changes to one without dealing with the others. This will be Canada’s strongest hand in the days ahead, but the journey will not be easy, or without peril.

If we re-visit the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as has been hinted, Canada’s strength will come from demonstrating our equality in the partnership. It will come from balancing our economic and environmental interests, particularly on climate change.

Prime Minister Harper has assembled a strong team and appears willing to pursue counter-intuitive solutions. That is a sign of good leadership, one that hopefully will prevail throughout.

John Wiebe
President and CEO
GLOBE Foundation of Canada

For More Information: GLOBE-Net

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