TORONTO — Canada’s image at the world’s signature climate negotiations could be complicated by infighting, some observers fear, as two of the federal government's ardent critics at the provincial level look to capture attention at the United Nations climate summit known as COP28.
But others say tensions between the federal government and the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan, two provincial leaders who have confirmed their attendance at the conference, could take a back seat at the summit.
After a summer of record-breaking heat and unprecedented wildfires, world leaders will gather Thursday for two weeks of climate change negotiations in Dubai.
From talk of fossil fuel phaseouts to climate finance, here's what you need to know ahead of COP28.
WHAT IS COP28?
In name, it's the 28th Conference of the Parties – COP28 – who have signed the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
In practice, it's an often contentious summit of the 197 signatory countries where leaders take stock of previous commitments and hammer out new pledges. Think of the Paris Agreement, which came out of COP21, where countries agreed to keep global temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial times, and aim for 1.5 degrees.
This year's summit will take place from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12.
One of the storylines in the lead up to negotiations has been the United Arab Emirates' move to name the head of its state-run oil company to oversee the climate talks. Civil society groups have claimed Sultan al-Jaber's appointment is an example of corporate capture of the summit, which has been criticized for its weak conflict-of-interest safeguards and for being well attended by fossil fuel lobbyists.
WHO IS GOING?
At more than 70,000 delegates, the COP28 guest list is massive.
While there's been no indication Prime Minister Justin Trudeau plans to attend, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault will be there, along with several provincial environment ministers, including from Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.
Two premiers who are set to attend, Alberta's Danielle Smith and Saskatchewan's Scott Moe, are also two of the most outspoken critics of the federal government's climate policies, including its carbon price scheme, emissions cap and net-zero energy grid target.
Just this weekend, Smith revealed plans to invoke the province's controversial sovereignty act to block federal clean energy regulations.
“I hope they will not go there and go and fight Canada’s climate policies because that is bad for Canada as a whole and for attracting investment,” said Catherine McKenna, former Liberal environment minister and now chair of a United Nations working group on net-zero emissions commitment, in an interview last week.
Smith is scheduled to host a fireside chat at the federal government's Canada pavilion, billed as a chance to tout Alberta's own carbon price scheme for industrial emitters. Saskatchewan, meanwhile, said this month it was buying its own pavilion to the tune of $765,000, with the energy minister claiming he didn't trust Ottawa to "share our story."
Some climate policy experts are unsurprised by the guest list.
"I'm sure that the reason that those two premiers are particularly interested in attending this COP is precisely because this is the COP that will be talking about the necessity of phasing out fossil fuels," said Catherine Abreu, executive director of Destination Zero, a non-profit working on climate justice and renewable energy transitions.
Rick Smith, president of the Canadian Climate Institute, said he would be surprised if the tensions between the provinces and federal government have a measurable influence on the talks.
FOSSIL FUEL PHASEOUT, PHASEDOWN OR DEADLOCK
The conference is taking place against the backdrop of the first-ever global stocktake, an assessment of the world's commitments under the Paris Agreement.
A UN report laying out the findings of the nearly two-year-long assessment said there had been some improvement but the world was still far off track to meet its goals. The report said to limit global temperature rise to the key 1.5-degree threshold, greenhouse gas emissions had to be cut by 43 per cent by 2030, compared to 2019 levels, and 60 per cent by 2035.
It called for the "phaseout of unabated fossil fuels." It's a phrase that observers say helps set the stage for this round of negotiations and goes further than what has been agreed to at the UN climate summits.
"This COP is important because for the first time ever, we're actually dealing with the nub of the issue: fossil fuels," said McKenna.
Two years ago, the draft agreement coming out of the summit in Scotland was the first to mention fossil fuel use at all, though limited it to coal. Last year in Egypt, there was a push for countries to phase out or phase down all fossil fuel use on a clear time frame, but the proposal never got formally debated.
"This year there has been a tremendous amount of momentum from countries, and also civil society and non-state actors, setting up the expectation that this will be the COP that gets countries to agree to accelerate the phaseout of fossil fuels and accelerate the scaling up of renewable and energy efficiency," said Abreu, of Destination Zero.
Canada, she said, has been part of that expectation setting. It signed on to a G7 joint statement this year that saw the group of wealthy countries agree to "accelerate the phaseout of unabated fossil fuels so as to achieve net zero in energy systems by 2050 at the latest."
Canada is a top-five oil producer in the world and has been criticized for planned increases to production through the end of this decade, at a time UN reports are warning that trend urgently needs to reverse.
To address cuts to fossil fuel use, a number of world leaders, including the UN Secretary-General, have called on countries at COP28 to commit to triple renewable energy capacity and double energy efficiency by 2030.
A cleaner electricity grid is the "linchpin of decarbonization," said Smith, of the Canadian Climate Institute.
"The buildout of clean electricity, largely renewables, not just in Canada but globally, is really the cornerstone of what needs to be done," he said.
The last COP ended with countries agreeing to create a historic "loss and damage" fund to help vulnerable countries hit hard by climate disasters, such as rising sea levels and drought. At this COP, countries are expected to negotiate where the money will come from, who can access it and how it will be distributed.
Canada has been active on climate finance and it's a file where it could play a leadership role at COP28, said Julie Segal, Environmental Defence's senior program manager for climate finance.
"As a wealthy country with high historical and current emissions, Canada has a form of climate debt owed to more vulnerable countries who contribute less pollution, said Segal. "So, this is about being a good global partner."
Canada co-chaired a group with Germany to push developed countries to meet a global commitment to provide $100 billion per year to help less wealthy countries adapt to climate change. After failing to meet the 2020 target, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released an estimate earlier this month saying it appeared the benchmark had been hit in 2022.
Abreu said she will be watching to see if that announcement translates into some "fortified trust" between negotiators at the COP talks.
Guilbeault, asked in the Senate last week about Canada's priorities at COP28, said the country must do a better job of "supporting the Global South on adaptation to climate change."
"Many of these countries are feeling the impacts and they are on the front line of climate impacts," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 28, 2023.
Jordan Omstead, The Canadian Press