Prosperity before climate change action?

Hoax press release puts spotlight on Canada

This morning a group of protesters rolled out the welcome mat -- literally -- for Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, who arrived in Copenhagen today. They mingled with Christmas shoppers outside the Canadian embassy by the main shopping drag in Copenhagen. There was a quirky element to the protest, with a gift basket of treaties for the prime minister to sign presented at the embassy door, but the atmosphere was serious. Speakers included Naomi Klein, who has been very prominent on the activist circuits this week.

The demonstration was organised by the Indigenous Peoples of Canada and called for a stop to the extraction of oil from the tar sands region in Alberta. Tar sands mining is the most energy-intensive and environmentally damaging method of extracting oil. It also destroys Canada's boreal forests, which store a vast amount of carbon.

Canada also figured prominently on the climate change blogosphere today. A hoax press release, which was picked up by the Wall Street Journal, raised false hopes among Canadian campaigners. It outlined a drastic shift in the country's environmental policy, doubling greenhouse-gas reduction targets to 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. But Ottawa responded quickly with a statement saying: "Canada's binding responsibility is to supply the world -- including its burgeoning developing portion -- with those means of transport, health and sustenance that prosperous markets require. Stopping short of these dictates would violate the very principles upon which our nations were founded, and endanger our very development."

"Without the dynamism of our oil sands industry, we in Canada would not have the energy -- moral, financial and literal -- to develop the alternative energy future the whole world craves," says Bruce Carson, a special adviser to Environment Canada.

Also released today was the Climate Change Performance Index report. The report was produced by the NGO German Watch, and ranks nations according to their environmental achievements. Canada was ranked 56th, out of 57 countries. Draft regulations on cap-and-trade in the country have been repeatedly delayed and are not expected until late 2010 at the earliest, while emissions continue to increase at 26 per cent over 1990 levels. In the past few months, the present administration has made it clear that it will ape US environmental policy, but continues to lag behind its neighbour in reducing emissions and investing in renewables.

Canada, the only nation to drop out of the Kyoto Protocol, has shown today that it will continue to put prosperity before climate change prevention. It could be a huge obstacle to achieving a transformative agreement this week.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.