Politics

Guilbeault brushes off opposition calls to cancel China climate trip

Canada's environment minister travels to China today to attend diplomatic meetings with an international group that advises Beijing on climate change — and he's ignoring opposition calls for him to quit the group and call out China over human rights abuses and alleged interference in Canadian elections.

Canada helped to establish the council Conservatives want Guilbeault to quit

Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault still plans to travel to China on Saturday, despite concerns from opposition parties.
Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault speaks at the opening of the Seventh Global Environment Facility Assembly in Vancouver on Aug. 23, 2023. (Ethan Cairns/The Canadian Press)

Canada's environment minister travels to China today to attend diplomatic meetings with an international group that advises Beijing on climate change — and he's ignoring opposition calls for him to quit the group and call out China over human rights abuses and alleged interference in Canadian elections.

Steven Guilbeault is attending the annual general meeting of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED), along with representatives of the United Nations, from Aug. 28 to 30 in Beijing.

In an interview with CBC News before his departure, Guilbeault stopped short of committing to bringing up China's interference in Canadian democracy and its human rights record during his trip.

"We will confront them when we have to confront them," Guilbeault said Friday. "But we will also cooperate on issues like climate change and nature."

Canada helped to establish the CCICED in the early 1990s to help China with its environmental challenges.

The Conservative Party of Canada is calling on Guilbeault to immediately resign as executive vice chair of that group and cut its funding.

"Canada's leaders should not hold formal positions in groups run by foreign governments," the party said in a media statement.

"If Minister Guilbeault insists on travelling to Beijing, he should firmly and vocally denounce Beijing's interference in Canada's democracy."

Ottawa has earmarked $16 million for the council from 2017 until 2026, according to Guilbeault's office.

There's 'no solution' without China: Guilbeault

Guilbeault called the Conservatives' position "extremely hypocritical." He said former Conservative environment minister Peter Kent, a longtime cabinet colleague of the party's current leader Pierre Poilievre, held the same position on the CCICED and visited China for council meetings.

"There is no solution to tackle climate change without involving all the large emitters around the world, and that certainly includes China," Guilbeault said.

"There is no solution to the global nature and biodiversity crisis without working with countries like India, China and Brazil, and that's exactly what I'm doing."

Green Party deputy leader
Jonathan Pedneault, deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada, says Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault should reconsider his trip to China. (Submitted by Green Party of Canada)

Jonathan Pedneault, deputy leader of the Green Party of Canada, said Guilbeault is the one who is being hypocritical.

Pedneault pointed out that China buys almost 50 per cent of coal exported by Canada and urged the minister to stop selling the fossil fuel.

"We benefit from China being a polluter," Pedneault told CBC News.

"It's a bit cynical that Minister Guilbeault will now be going to China to give lessons or engage in climate diplomacy at a time when we are failing to meet our own targets on emission reductions."

Guilbeault is expected to follow up with China on the commitment it and other nations made last December during the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal to protect 30 per cent of global land and water by 2030, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to a US$100 billion fund to help poorer countries adapt to climate change.

But the meetings aren't expected to lead to a major breakthrough.

First trip by Canadian minister to China since 2019

Henri-Paul Normandin, a former diplomat who helped to establish the CCICED in 1992 under former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, called Guilbeault's trip a step forward in re-engaging China.

This is the first visit by a Canadian cabinet minister to China since 2019.

Normandin said Guilbeault should seize the opportunity to address serious issues impeding Canada-China relations on the margins of the council's discussions.

"If you want to speak truth to power in China, you have to deal with Communist Party officials," Normandin said.

"There's no way around it. Otherwise, just stay home."

China buys almost 50 per cent of coal exported by Canada.
Cars move along a highway in a coal-producing region in Yulin in northwestern China's Shaanxi province on April 24, 2023. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Normandin said the CCICED was formed in the early 1990s at a time when China was struggling with pollution, landslides and flooding caused by construction and land erosion.

China turned to Canada for ideas and policy advice on environmental management. 

"That was really a bold initiative in terms of the collaboration between China and the international community," Normandin said.

"Those were the days when there was trust between China and Canada. We enjoyed a rather good relationship based on mutual respect and confidence. Sure, there were some issues, like human rights and so on, but there was a high level of trust. Of course, that is not there anymore today."

Since then, relations have soured over flashpoints like China's detention of Canadian nationals Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, more recent allegations of interference in Canadian federal elections and Beijing's grim human rights record.

Li Shuo, a senior Greenpeace policy adviser based in Beijing, said the primary goal of the council should be to reduce China's coal addiction, which makes up the lion's share of the country's carbon emissions.

"China is an indispensable player when it comes to solving global emission issues," Shuo said.

"We have to engage with China. The China council serves as a good platform to do that."

China remains the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. 

The 2016 Paris Agreement committed countries to working toward limiting warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, but the planet is close to surpassing that target.

The world has already warmed by at least 1.1 C and 1.3 C, causing an increase in deadly wildfires, droughts and floods. 

Natural disasters are expected to worsen unless there is a dramatic course correction, according to the scientific consensus on climate change.

Global climate pledges have placed the world on track for a temperature rise of between 2.4 C and 2.6 C by 2100, according to the UN.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

With files from the CBC's David Thurton

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