A photo of Canadian environment minister Steven Guilbeault at the COP26 meeting in November of 2021.
Canadian environment minister Steven Guilbeault at the COP26 meeting in November of 2021. Credit: CPAC Credit: CPAC

Federal Conservatives are calling it a betrayal to democracy and the environment. Federal Environment Minister Stephen Guilbeault left for Beijing this weekend to attend the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (CCICED)’s annual general meeting, which began yesterday. 

Guilbeault serves as one of two executive vice chairs of the council. Other non-Chinese nationals on the executive committee include Director of the UN’s Environment Programme Inger Anderson, UN Development Programme administrator Achim Steiner, Director of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research Kristin Halvorsen, and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development Scott Vaughan. 

But Guilbeault’s most recent trip has prompted various Conservative MPs to accuse him of ignoring human rights abuses and attacks on Canada’s democracy. An official statement from the party’s website, headlined “Mr. Guilbeault’s baffling trip to Beijing,” made sure to mention that the country is communist, and that China is the highest emitter of greenhouse gases by country.  

Canada’s long-term relationship with the Chinese environment and development group 

These criticisms are misleading in a handful of ways. Perhaps not even the Conservative Party fully believes them. 

“Canada has become an outlier in its strident anti-China propaganda, fuelled by an unholy alliance among the Conservatives, the Bloc and the federal NDP,” said John Price, History professor at the University of Victoria. 

Pearl-clutching at the Trudeau government’s supposed sympathies for the Communist Party of China (CPC) has become a favourite source of political ammunition for opposition parties, particularly the Conservatives. 

For example: “[Guilbeault is] sending this Beijing-controlled group more than $16M of your tax dollars!” declared former party leader Andrew Scheer on X (formerly Twitter). 

The CCICED is in fact formally established as an independent advisory group. Canada has also consistently sent it money since it was established in 1992, including, yes, under Stephen Harper – $14 million, to be precise. 

Actually, our emissions are worse

“[China is] now using our good name to burnish its reputation on the environment,” said Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Michael Chong to the Globe and Mail. Chong and his party have also doubled down on China’s rapid expansion of coal burning operations. 

By country, China does indeed emit the greatest volume of carbon dioxide per year. It is also the second most populated country in the world, with a population 37 times higher than Canada’s. Per capita though, Canada’s carbon emissions are more than three times higher than China’s. 

Canada also effectively “exports” much of its carbon emissions to China. In 2022, Canada exported four million metric tons of crude oil to China, and imported $77 billion USD of goods, mostly electronic equipment and machinery, representing 14 per cent of its total imports. 

These are fossil fuels that the Canadian economy profited from, and products that Canadians consumed. But they are only accounted for under China’s carbon emissions score.

Look in the mirror, Canada

And as for giving the PRC the silent treatment over human-rights abuses? 

“Militarized police have repeatedly, forcibly removed Indigenous people from their homes and traditional territories in BC to ram a fossil fuel pipeline through unceded lands, contravening UNDRIP,” noted Dr. Melissa Lem, president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, and Clinical Assistant Professor at University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine.

The RCMP are also currently raiding Fairy Creek, arresting protesters for defending old-growth forests in Paachedaht First Nation from the logging corporation Teal Jones. 

“People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” Lem said. 

Price added, “if [boycotting China] is going to be the standard, then we should halt all relations with the United States for its genocide against Native Americans, slavery and its continuing effects, and its illegal wars.”

Co-operation with China the only option

Both China and Canada have much work to do as far as their environmental impact goes. And China has every reason to pursue environmental initiatives in good faith, says Lem. 

“They’ve suffered through extreme heat and flooding that have killed dozens of people this year alone. Air pollution, mostly from coal plants and other fossil fuels, kills about 2 million people in China every year,” she noted. 

Co-operation between the two governments has, thus far, produced hopeful results. COP15, the 2022 biodiversity conference, was chaired by China and hosted in Montreal, due to COVID-19 precautions. 

Lem was there when conference leaders announced the “historic” Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework: it lays out protections for 30 per cent of land and sea areas around the world, and aims to restore 30 per cent of the world’s damaged ecosystems, by 2050. 

“There’s no way it would have happened without China as an active player,” said Lem. “More collaboration and less divisiveness is what we need.”

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Georgia Kelly

Georgia Kelly (she/her) is rabble.ca’s assistant editor. She is an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, where she is studying History, Creative Writing, and Law. She is also the Business and Labour...