Canada’s climate diplomacy conundrum — fossil fuels

John Woodside
Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault speaks to reporters during COP15 in Montreal. Photo via UN Biodiversity/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Sept. 21, 2023

With world leaders gathered in New York City to discuss the mounting crises of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss, Canada is attempting to grow its influence on those international negotiations and appears set on a collision course over fossil fuels.

The Climate Action Summit in New York is an important stepping stone to COP28, the annual United Nations climate summit in Dubai later this year where the focus is expected to centre around a fossil-fuel phaseout. Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault will play a crucial role in the COP28 discussions, having been recently tapped by the United Arab Emirates (COP28 president) to serve as co-facilitator alongside Egyptian Environment Minister Yasmine Fouad to find ways to keep the Paris Agreement’s goals within reach. But at the same time Guilbeault’s influence is surging, Oil Change International’s recent Planet Wreckers report found Canada has the second-largest fossil fuel expansion plans in the world.

Because climate diplomacy in the UN system is built on trust between nations, representing one of the countries most responsible for the climate crisis that is also still planning to increase fossil fuel production, promises to put Guilbeault in a tough position as he attempts to rally countries into agreeing on a path forward.

“What I'm hoping we can focus on collectively is not so much on the problem –– I think we have a pretty good idea what the problem is. So what are the collective solutions to this problem?” Guilbeault told Canada’s National Observer. “It's one thing to be saying Canada should be doing this and the U.S. should be doing this, but collectively, how does this come together and how do we further advance … the fight against climate change?”

Canada and Egypt are not the only two countries to be paired. Singapore and Norway have been tapped to lead talks on how to cut greenhouse gas emissions, while Chile and Australia have been teamed up to lead talks on how to adapt to climate change. By specifically choosing Canada, Australia and Norway to play facilitator roles, the UAE is ensuring major fossil-fuel-producing countries can influence the talks. According to the analysis from Oil Change International, Canada, Australia, Norway and the UAE are all in the top 15 countries planning the most aggressive fossil fuel expansion worldwide.

Screenshot of Oil Change International study.

So, any talk of a phaseout promises to be a tough fight given the COP28 president is Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the United Arab Emirates climate envoy who also serves as the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the world’s 12th largest oil company.

University of Toronto political science professor Jessica Green, an authoritative voice on international climate governance, said in Canada’s three-decade history of participating in global climate negotiations, it has never met a climate pledge, yet still casts itself as a climate leader. “So I see this move of being a [co-facilitator] as more of the same thing, making these big claims about our desire to be a climate leader that are just not followed through with action,” she said.

One of the strengths of the UN is that it's seen as legitimate in world politics, but having an oil CEO preside over COP negotiations and picking major fossil-fuel-producing countries to play leading roles is “terrible” optics, she added. “Legitimacy is very important for the credibility of the institution and having an overwhelming presence of fossil fuel interests is a direct threat to that.”

With world leaders gathered in New York City to discuss the mounting crisis of climate change, Canada is attempting to grow its influence on international negotiations and appears set on a collision course over fossil fuels. Twitter

"The flip side is you need to have these [major fossil fuel producing] countries on board if you're going to make meaningful progress,” she said. Unless heavy-emitting countries tackle their fossil fuel production, real progress at curbing global greenhouse gas emissions isn’t possible. “And so there's a balancing act, I think, between making sure these important big-emitting countries are involved in the process and not having them exercise undue influence.”

Last year at COP27 in Egypt, Canada joined other countries in a call to phase out unabated fossil fuels. But climate advocates took issue with the phrase “unabated” –– a weasel word in their view that allows for continued fossil fuel expansion as long as it's equipped with carbon capture technology that at best could only capture 10 to 15 per cent of fossil fuel emissions.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault and Egyptian Environment Minister Yasmine Fouad reviewing notes at COP15 in Montreal. Photo by Natasha Bulowski/Canada's National Observer

In response to the expected influence of fossil fuels on the negotiating process this year, 17 heads of state, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and Kenyan President William Ruto — who make up a negotiating bloc called the High Ambition Coalition — published a statement on Tuesday that said abatement technologies have a minimal role to play, and should not be used “to green-light fossil fuel expansion.”

“Until we stop adding carbon to the atmosphere, the harm we are causing, particularly to the poorest and those least responsible for the climate crisis, will deepen, and the need to continuously adapt will never end. The costs will go up and up. We will count them in human lives,” the statement adds.

Greenpeace Canada senior strategist Keith Stewart said Canada has agreed to phase out “unabated” fossil fuels as a way to limit the “outrage coming out of the oilpatch … while also being able to show up at UN events and say things that sound good.

“The language of diplomacy is designed to paper over any real differences, and I think what's interesting is increasingly we're seeing the UN secretary general stepping away from that kind of vague statements with no real content to actually demanding action,” said Stewart. “That's going to ramp up pressure on countries like Canada that are trying to have their cake and eat it too.

“Ultimately, we're going to have to pick a lane,” he said.

Canada’s delegation to New York includes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly, International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen and Guilbeault.

In recent years, Canada has been increasing its influence on key negotiations in the international system. Ahead of the UN climate summit in Glasgow in 2021, Canada was chosen alongside Germany to handle a plan to deliver on a broken promise to provide US$100 billion worth of climate finance to developing countries and last year, Canada hosted the world in Montreal for a biodiversity summit that agreed to a landmark nature protection treaty.

[Top photo: Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault speaks to reporters during COP15 in Montreal. Photo via UN Biodiversity/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]