A government reveals a lot about itself by what it says it can’t do. The Harper government, for instance, insists that Canada can’t possibly meet its Kyoto targets on greenhouse gas emissions.

Interestingly, there’s no such defeatism on the Conservative benches over Afghanistan.

Indeed, when it comes to the Afghan war, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is full of bravado and fighting spirit, despite the most dismal prospects for victory in that war — as a report by a Canadian Senate committee spelled out this week.

No matter how hopeless the situation in Afghanistan, Harper vows that Canada will be there, as a “country that leads, not that just follows.”

Yet in the battle against climate change — a far more important battle, by any reasonable measure — Canada, under the Conservatives, doesn’t lead or follow. It doesn’t even bother to show up.

This week, it voted against an opposition bill requiring Ottawa to meet our obligations under Kyoto, which we ratified in 2002.

The dispirited approach to Kyoto reveals the shallowness of Harper’s recent conversion to the environmental cause in the wake of the sudden emergence of the issue as the top concern of Canadians.

Of course, we all know that Harper spent years in the trenches of the global warming battle — fighting on the wrong side, along with oil companies and a tiny gang of academic climate-change deniers.

But there’s been surprisingly little chortling recently as the Prime Minister, somehow managing a straight face, now insists that “the science is clear that these changes are occurring, they’re serious and we must act.”

Such a late acceptance of what the scientific world has been loudly trumpeting for more than a decade would still be welcome, if it seemed genuine. Personally, I’d be more inclined to buy a used car from this Prime Minister than to trust his commitment to saving the planet.

So far, the government has been frantically reinstating Liberal programs cancelled earlier this year.

But even these would have only limited impact in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to Stephen Hazell, executive director of Sierra Club of Canada.

Harper likes to imply that actually meeting Kyoto targets would require unbearable sacrifices by Canadians.

He recently suggested we’d have to live in unheated homes all winter.

He seems to be trying to keep the focus away from reasonable and promising solutions, like clamping down on large industrial emitters, an approach called for in the opposition bill rejected by the Conservatives.

Above all, Harper seems keen to avoid clamping down on the oil sands.

Indeed, Harper’s weak embrace of the environmental cause is perhaps best revealed by his refusal to end a special federal subsidy enjoyed by oil sands developers, a constituency that Harper has long been close to.

Under the Accelerated Capital Cost Allowance, oil-sands developers are allowed to deduct 100 per cent of their capital costs immediately — a tax perk that far exceeds the generosity of the 25 per cent deduction available to companies investing in conventional oil projects.

The allowance, introduced in 1996, was justified as a way to stimulate investment in the oil sands at a time when the potential of the resource hadn’t yet been proven, and low world oil prices made development costs seem prohibitive.

There was also less awareness of climate change back then; Kyoto wasn’t even signed until the following year.

But what may have seemed reasonable 11 years ago is downright perverse today, with oil-sands development overstimulated and now the fastest-growing source of our greenhouse gases.

The special tax treatment certainly flies in the face of any notion that the government is serious about reducing Canada’s emissions.

It would be equivalent to Ottawa offering subsidies to the Taliban while vowing it is committed to victory in Afghanistan.

To make things more perverse, the companies benefiting from the special tax incentive are among the most profitable in Canada, including Husky, Imperial, Shell and Suncor.

In 2005, the oil and gas industry achieved operating profits of $30 billion — a 50 per cent increase over the previous year, according to the Alberta-based Pembina Institute.

It’s hardly a sector that needs extra help from Canadian taxpayers.

In fact, oil-sands producers could easily afford to pay the additional $1 on each barrel of oil which the Pembina Institute estimates would cover the cost of serious emission reduction.

No wonder Harper is convinced we can’t meet our Kyoto targets: He’s planning to keep on giving special incentives to our biggest emitters.

Linda McQuaig

Journalist and best-selling author Linda McQuaig has developed a reputation for challenging the establishment. As a reporter for The Globe and Mail, she won a National Newspaper Award in 1989...