As long as Stephen Harper’s government holds the reigns of power, Canada will remain a global environmental pariah.

The reasons why this is so are not hard to find, but they are seldom analyzed in public discourse on the issue.

To the extent that the Harper government has an economic strategy, beyond letting the marketplace take the country where it will, it is to make Canada an “energy superpower.” That goal, in turn, rests almost entirely on the massive development of the Alberta oil sands to extract oil for export to the United States. Finally, under the terms of NAFTA, the more oil Canada exports to the United States, the more oil it will be required to export in the future. Large scale oil sands development is incompatible with the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. Indeed, Canada is en route to passing the United States as an emitter of greenhouse gases on a per capita basis.

Let’s examine each of the links in this chain of inter-connected realities.

With its close ties to the multinational and national petroleum companies operating in Alberta, the Harper government is dedicated to the proposition that Canada should be a secure base for rising petroleum exports to the United States, in short an “energy superpower.”

Indeed, over the past couple of decades, the American reliance on Canadian oil has grown steadily larger. In July 2006, at 1.6 million barrels a day, Canada was the largest single exporter of crude oil to the United States. Rounding out the top five exporters to the U.S. were Mexico with just over 1.5 million barrels daily, Saudi Arabia at over 1.2 million barrels, Venezuela with nearly 1.2 million barrels, and Nigeria with just over 1.0 million barrels. These five countries were the source of sixty-six per cent of American oil imports. What these totals make clear is the high dependence of the United States on Canada and other Western Hemisphere sources of oil and its relatively low reliance on Middle Eastern sources.

The Harper government’s vision of Canada as a major world petroleum exporter is based on the Alberta oil sands. As oil, national security and the war on terror have become tightly aligned in the thinking of American political leaders, Canada’s largest petroleum deposit, the oil sands, has been ever more closely scrutinized from Washington. Located across an enormous region of north-eastern Alberta — in three major areas spread over 140,800 square kilometers, an area larger than the state of Florida — centred on Fort McMurray about three hundred kilometers north of Edmonton — the oil sands contains almost as much oil as the conventional reserves of Saudi Arabia.

In the early years of this century, oil sands investments totaled nearly $200 billion. By the spring of 2008, oil sands production reached 1.3 million barrels a day, more than half of Canada’s oil production. Ten per cent of North American crude oil production already comes from the oil sands. Incredible as it may seem, the Alberta government produced one scenario that concluded that by 2050, the oil sands could produce eight million barrels of oil a day, transforming Alberta into a North American Saudi Arabia.

The vision of Canada as a vast supplier of petroleum from the oil sands for a thirsty United States is one that promotes dreams of enormous profits in the minds the executives of the petroleum companies and the investors in those companies.

But it is a truly dark vision for the simple reason that the industrial process by which oil is produced from the oil sands results in the release of an enormous volume of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Pursuing the vision commits Alberta, indeed Canada as a whole, to the emission of greenhouse gases on a gargantuan scale, exactly what the earth does not now need. Not only is the production of oil sands oil very expensive, it involves strip mining on a vast scale and the reduction of huge tracts of land to a scarred horror. The production of oil from the oil sands requires enormous inputs of fresh water and natural gas.

The oil sands has become by far the biggest source of greenhouse emissions in Canada. It is no exaggeration to say that without a steep reduction in the production of synthetic crude oil from the oil sands, all other programs in Canada to reduce emissions will be fruitless. Oil sands development has directly shaped the environmental policies of the Harper government.

Let’s look further into this matter of greenhouse gas emissions. The way to do this meaningfully in the lead up to the Copenhagen climate change conference is to tally the metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per country per capita per year. Then we can examine the total emissions of key countries.

Using 2006 figures, the per capita CO2 emissions of the United States were 19.78 metric tons, Canada 18.81, and Australia 20.58. These were the top emitters per capita among the major advanced countries. Further down the list were other major industrialized countries: Japan, 9.78; Germany, 10.40; U.K., 9.66; Italy, 8.05; and France, 6.60. Then we come to the major developing countries: China, 4.58; India, 1.16; Mexico, 4.05; and Brazil, 2.01.

Here are the total emissions of these countries for 2006 in millions of metric tons of CO2: China, 6017.69; United States, 5902.75; India, 1293.17; Japan, 1246.76; Germany, 857.60; Canada, 614.33; United Kingdom, 585.71; Italy, 468.19; Mexico, 435.60; France, 417.75; Australia, 417.06; and Brazil, 377.24.

When we break out the Canadian per capita emissions further, we find that between them Alberta and Saskatchewan (with Saskatchewan higher than Alberta) come in at a staggering 70. The rest of Canada scored 16.

What the figures tell us is that on a per capita basis, developed countries are much more serious emitters of greenhouse gases than are developing countries and that includes the two giants China and India. On the other hand, because of their gigantic populations, China and India are enormous emitters of CO2, respectively ranking number one and number four among the countries of the world.

The nub of the problem is that the developed countries established their high living standards by polluting, on a per capita basis, much more wantonly than the rest of the world. Developing countries are not prepared to allow developed countries to acquire a “grandfather” clause in climate change agreements that would allow them to go on polluting much more per capita than anyone else.

Developed countries, the United States in particular, is determined to be allowed to go on spewing out CO2 emissions, per capita, at a vastly higher rate than China, India or Brazil. The Europeans, who pollute less, are less committed to their right to pollute because they got there first, but they too pollute, per capita much more than China or India.

The Harper government is the worst of the bunch. Our government is determined to insert a rising rate of CO2 emissions right into the heart of our economic strategy. Right now, Canada’s per capita emissions of CO2 are close to five times as high as those of China. The emissions of Alberta and Saskatchewan are fifteen times as high as China’s on a per capita basis.

Any government committed to increasing the production of oil from the oil sands, precisely the position of the Harper government, is dedicated to the proposition that Canada should have the right for decades to come to pollute far more per capita than other countries. On this agenda, Canada will certainly pass the United States, per capita, in greenhouse gas emissions and will likely overtake Australia. Admittedly, it will be as a supplier of dirty oil to the United States that Canada will make itself a “pollution superpower.”

The members of the Harper government did not arrive at their environmental policy, relying on so-called intensity targets, which allow oil sands production to keep on rising as long as emissions-per-barrel go down, for nothing. They did it for the oldest of political reasons. As a government, they are serving the interests of oil companies that have tens of billions of dollars in future profits at stake. It’s as simple as that.

Finally, there’s the matter of NAFTA. Under the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Canada has to continue exporting as much petroleum to the United States as it has been exporting on a rolling average of the previous three years. This means, among other things, that Canada would be required to continue its exports of petroleum to the U.S. even if imports of petroleum to eastern Canada from overseas were cut off as a consequence of a supply crisis generated by falling supplies or a geo-political conflict. This stipulation means that Canada has to make the supplying of the American petroleum market a higher priority than meeting the requirements of Canadian markets experiencing a shortage.

If, as the Harper government fervently wishes, the expansion of oil sands projects dramatically increases Canadian petroleum production, the country’s commitment to export more petroleum to the United States will rise in lock step. The whole point of more oil sands operations is to meet the oil requirements of the U.S.

The plain fact is that when you combine the Harper government’s economic strategy with the stipulations of NAFTA, this country is being locked into rising, not falling, CO2 emissions. Anyone who wants to change the course Canada is on with respect to climate change needs to come to terms with these hard realities. Anything else is nothing more than hot air.

Stephen Harper is going to Copenhagen because the presidents of the United States and China are going. He will be there to try to prevent a binding agreement on greenhouse gas emissions from being achieved. As long as he remains in power, Canada will be a global pariah on the issue of climate change.