Canadian Climate Change Foreign Policy Term Paper

Pages: 6 (1772 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 6  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Weather

Climate Change

With the coming election, Canadians have the opportunity to set a course for federal government response to Climate Change policy. Over the past several years, it has become evident that the course of climate change policy in Canada differs dramatically with the constitution of the Parliament. Under the Chretien/Martin Liberal governments, the Kyoto Protocol provided the framework for climate change policy, but that emphasis has shifted under the successive Harper minorities. This essay will outline the form and nature of these policy shifts, with the objective of providing historical perspective on Canada's climate change policy debate, with a focus on the foreign policy elements of this debate.

UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol

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For most of the period of climate change policy debate in Canada, the nation has been an active participant in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC was designed with the objective of setting international and domestic policies on climate change. In the early stages of the UNFCCC, Canada was seen as an early leader in climate change, and a key bridge between "North" and "South" of the economic divide. Canada in particular took a leading role in the Earth Summit. The country's engagement waned in the middle part of the decade, however, in part due to the increased involvement of industry in setting climate change policy (Runnalls, n.d.) the early leadership phase had won Canada a strong international reputation as a climate change leader, at a time when the country had considerable flexibility in designing climate change policy; the involvement of the business lobby changed that and the country entered a new era of inconsistent climate change policy. While Chretien ultimately signed Canada into Kyoto with stricter-than-expected commitments, the nation's policy seemed to waver through the mid- to late-90s (Smith, 1998).

TOPIC: Term Paper on Canadian Climate Change Foreign Policy Assignment

The most important of these agreements is the Kyoto Protocol. When Canada signed the Protocol, the government committed the country to policies such as those stipulating the reduction of greenhouse gas emission to 6% below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. For the most part, Canada negotiated its own targets. Canada's commitments were considered to be binding, but came with no enforcement mechanisms attached (Williams, 2009).

Canada's ratification of the Kyoto Protocol came in 2002, before the agreement was ratified by the requisite number of nations. Canada was the only nation in the Americas that agreed to specific greenhouse gas reduction targets (Williams, 2009). Then-Prime Minister Chretien heralded the agreement as a major step for Canada and it became one of his sources of legacy (Kukucha, 2005). Canada's ratification of Kyoto was viewed favorably by European nations and the nation was seen as a leader with respect to taking action on climate change. This represented a change of international opinion of Canada regarding climate change -- during the 1990s the nation was derided for its perceived indifference towards an international climate change agreement (Rabe, 2007).

The ratification and the setting of more challenging targets than was probably necessary may have bought the country goodwill with Europe and other major Kyoto proponents but did little to improve relations between the federal government and provinces, many of which were dismayed by the new targets (Runnalls & Nijam, n.d.). Many provinces, but especially Alberta, decried what they perceived was a lack of provincial input into the negotiation process (MacDonald & Smith, 2000). Rabe (2007) argues that domestic policy did not match Canada's commitments, and Runnalls (n.d.) points out that Canada quickly fell behind its commitment targets, even before Kyoto was ratified. Climate change was politically popular at this point in time and was credited for helping the Liberals win the 2003 election (Runnalls, n.d.) as a result of Chretien's enthusiastic adoption of Kyoto, Canada regained the moral superiority in North America on the issue of climate change (Rabe, 2007).

Despite the relatively popularity of the Kyoto Protocol among Canadians -- at least in principle -- there were continued signs through this period that policies would not be sufficient for the nation to meet its commitments. In 1997, for example, a meeting of federal and provincial officials yielded commitments below those being discussed for Kyoto at the time (Smith, 1998). When Chretien demanded stronger commitments several years later, the negative reaction from provincial officials, who had not even committed to the initial Kyoto targets, was predictable.


With the election of a Conservative minority in 2006, federal government policy towards climate change made a dramatic shift. The Tories did not compete on a climate change platform and did not consider it to be one of their priorities (Runnalls, n.d.) the Harper government began by disengaging from Kyoto, announcing that it would not even attempt to meet the Kyoto obligations (Runnalls, n.d.). The Conservative government launched its own climate change plan. While the efficacy of this plan cannot yet be fully measured, Williams (2009) points out that prior plans even in 2006 were considered to be incomplete and ineffective in practice, so the outlook for the weakened Conservative plan does not bode well.

One of the major shifts in Canada's climate change response under the Harper government is to create foreign and domestic climate change policy roughly in line with the policy in the United States (Drexhage & Murphy, 2010). This not only removes Canada from its leadership role, but puts its policy at the mercy of the U.S.'s cadre of extreme-right ideologues. There have been recent signs, however, that Canada may consider a leadership role in climate change again. Drexhage & Murphy (2010) argue that Canada's recent hosting of the G8 and G20 summits compelled it to take a more proactive role.

That said, while the federal government has set targets for GHG reduction for 2020, there is little evidence of a plan to make this happen. Drexhage & Murphy (2010) argue that there are political motivations for inaction in that missteps are punished swiftly but inaction is not. There are also economic motivations in that any move is viewed by the business community as hurting short-run profits, though it should be noted that long-run profits have not played a major factor in setting climate change policy, despite the fact that climate change is a long-run issue. This relative intransigence compared with the early part of the 2000s, and the willingness to tie climate change policy with that of the climate change pariah south of the border has damaged Canada's international reputation as a climate change policy leader considerably.

That voters have not placed climate change at the forefront of policy considerations has been a key driver of the government inaction, just as climate change urgency in the early 2000s drove Chretien to view the issue as an opportunity to create his legacy. In addition, Conservative ideology, which emphasizes belief systems over scientific fact, has led to the federal government's willingness to downplay the importance of taking a leadership role on climate change.

Another factor that has arisen of late is the dependence of the Canadian economy on the Alberta oil sands. As Canada has emerged as a global hydrocarbon power, the county has significant economic incentive -- again primarily in the short-run -- to avoid curtailing global hydrocarbon emissions. Given the economic slowdown of the past few years, the economy has become more dependent on the oil sands and therefore government has become less interested in pushing the type of aggressive climate change agenda that was popular during the Chretien years.


Canada's climate change policy -- and with it its influence in foreign policy development on the issue -- has undergone several different stages. During the beginnings of the international policy debate, Canada took a leading role and earned a strong international reputation as a result. When the nation wavered, its reputation began to be conflated with that of the typically-intransigent United States. The reputation of Canada, and its influence in the world, was restored with the ratification of Kyoto. However, this reputation was undermined by the lack of strong domestic policies to match the international rhetoric. The past several years of Conservative minority governments have seen Canada become, with a few exceptions, an increasingly irrelevant player on the foreign policy front with respect to climate change. This is primarily due to choice, but with this reduction in the government's ability to influence the climate change debate comes risks associated with falling out of relevance in other policy areas as well.

The lack of leadership at the federal level has for the most part inspired a corresponding lack of leadership at the provincial level as well. While the larger provinces have passed laws allowing cap-and-trade systems (Drexhage & Murphy, 2010), the subnational legal infrastructure for climate change is generally underdeveloped in Canada compared with the United States (Rabe, 2007). Canada's lack of leadership resulted from attrition of talent at the provincial level (Rabe, 2007) and from the tone of federal-provincial dialogue on climate change that was set during the Chretien years.

The current state of climate change policy is relatively poor, and… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Canadian Climate Change Foreign Policy.  (2011, April 5).  Retrieved January 16, 2022, from

MLA Format

"Canadian Climate Change Foreign Policy."  5 April 2011.  Web.  16 January 2022. <>.

Chicago Style

"Canadian Climate Change Foreign Policy."  April 5, 2011.  Accessed January 16, 2022.