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'Dirty' image puts Canada in climate doghouse at Copenhagen

Workers use heavy machinery in the tailings pond at the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near the town of Fort McMurray in Alberta Province, Canada on October 25, 2009.


The country "is the dirty old man of the climate world," according to a recent Guardian article. Another prominent article published ahead of the Copenhagen climate-change summit called it a "corrupt petro-state." Various diplomats and scientists have rallied for its expulsion from international organizations.

China? Venezuela or an oil-stained African state?

Try Canada.

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Almost 200 countries will attend the Copenhagen conference, which starts Monday, but few of them will roll in with a more blackened image.

Among the international carbon-reduction negotiators, Canada is seen as part of the problem, not part of the solution, partly because its greenhouse emissions under the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol soared when they were supposed to go in the opposite direction, and because the proposed new cuts are relatively small.

But it was the turbo-charged expansion of the Alberta oil sands, one of the single biggest sources of planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions, that truly vilified Canada. Climate-change scientists and negotiators think Canada's desire to protect the oil sands more than offsets any desire to push hard for success in Copenhagen.

"The oil sands are an extremely dirty source of energy and I'm sure this has a major role in determining Canada's position," said Kim Carstensen, the Dane who leads the WWF International's climate-change work and was a member his country's delegation to the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, Copenhagen's spiritual father.

Canada's per-person greenhouse gas emissions are among the world's highest, which should not come as a surprise, given the country's cold temperatures, long distances and vast (though shrinking) industrial base. What shocks some countries is Canada's response to Kyoto. When it ratified the treaty in 2002, then prime minister Jean Chrétien vowed that Canada would reduce emissions by 6 per cent by 2012 over the 1990 base year. They are up 26 per cent or more instead.

"Canada did not take its Kyoto obligations seriously, particularly under Stephen Harper, and that goes against Canada's image," said Saleemul Huq, a lead author of the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, the United Nations scientific body that assesses climate change.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has committed to a 20 per cent reduction by 2020, but from a new base year - 2006 - when the Canadian economy was on fire. In late 2007 Canada blocked a Commonwealth resolution to support binding emissions targets for industrialized countries.

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A year later, environmental groups presented the country with the "Fossil of the Year" award for the country most disruptive of the climate-change talks in Poland. Last week, at the Commonwealth Summit in Trinidad and Tobago, Clare Short, Britain's former development secretary said, "Countries that fail to help [reduce global warming]should be suspended from membership, as are those that breach human rights."

She was referring to Canada.

Not everyone thinks Canada's shabby image is justified. Matthew Bateson, director of energy and climate for the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (whose members include B.C. Hydro and Canadian oil sands giant Suncor) says "It's unfair to paint Canada with a black brush."

He notes that Canada is one of the world leaders in developing carbon capture and storage (CCS), a new technology that strips carbon dioxide from the flue gases of coal-burning plants or refineries and buries it underground. "CCS is one of the technologies needed to transition to a new, low-carbon economy and Canada is putting its money where its mouth is," Mr. Bateson said.

Still, there is no doubt Canada will have a lot of explaining to do at the two-week-long Copenhagen summit and that much of its task lies in trying to dab green onto the grubby oil sands - or at least convincing others that the some green exists.

For a task that carries national and international implications, however, Canada's efforts have been decidedly low-key and ineffectual. To the public, the image of the oil sands has been shaped by Greenpeace campaigners.

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Even some of Canada's respected business leaders acknowledge that they have fallen behind in the image campaign.

"The industry has to accept some responsibility," said Murray Edwards, vice-chairman of oil sands miner Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. of Calgary "It has not been as pro-active as it should have been or could have been over the last decade in making sure the public understands the balance in the oil sands between the economy and the environment."

One company, Cenovus Energy Inc., has bought TV spots aimed to show the benefits of its products. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers delivers representatives to various debates to help shape the "conversation" and works to correct inaccuracies in anything written about the oil sands.

But even strong voices aren't getting much attention.

"This clearly has the hallmarks of being a situation in which the reputation is under siege and it needs to be managed," said Niraj Dawar, a professor of marketing communications at the Richard Ivey School of Business. "A picture of a dead duck [1,606 died in an oil sands tailings pond]is far more powerful than the data or information that they can provide. What they need to come up with is pictures of their own."

Others say the oil patch needs a complete rethink of its strategy.

"We need to position our industry as one that prioritizes the value of people more than anything else," wrote Jeremy Dietz, a communications specialist in Calgary, in a letter to the CAPP this summer. "In essence, we need to position ourselves as the human rights friendly oil industry."

But not everyone thinks a marketing campaign is the way to go. "I don't think you can solve the challenge solely by putting money into marketing," Mr. Edwards of CNR said. "You have to put the money into actually making advancements in terms of the impact on the environment. The facts do matter."

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European Columnist

Eric Reguly is the European columnist for The Globe and Mail and is based in Rome. Since 2007, when he moved to Europe, he has primarily covered economic and financial stories, ranging from the euro zone crisis and the bank bailouts to the rise and fall of Russia's oligarchs and the merger of Fiat and Chrysler. More

Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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