Obama hands Trudeau the climate torch as prime minister seeks to build momentum

U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walk from the Oval Office to a joint press conference in the Rose Garden of the White House March 10, 2016 in Washington, DC. Trudeau and Obama met privately in the Oval Office prior to the press conference. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

OTTAWA – Entering the twilight of his presidency, President Barack Obama has passed the climate change baton to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, aligning the political stars on an issue central to both the U.S. president’s legacy and Canada’s foreign policy.

With just 10 months before he vacates the White House, Obama used Trudeau’s state visit to Washington on Thursday to cement a joint intent to move forward on a series of initiatives on reducing greenhouse gases and finding new sources of non-carbon based energy.

“I’m especially pleased to say that the United States and Canada are fully united in combating climate change,” Obama said Thursday.

“I believe we’ve laid the foundation for even greater co-operation for our countries for years to come and I’d like to think that it is only the beginning.”

Trudeau has placed climate change at the heart of his domestic and foreign policy, incorporating it as a cross-cutting theme in the mandate letters to his cabinet ministers – not just Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, but Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion and their counterparts in natural resources, indigenous affairs and infrastructure.

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Obama said he intends to work toward ensuring the Democrats win November’s presidential election. But even if that’s not the case, he said the “close friendship and relationship” between the two countries will ensure that some policies carry into the future.

READ MORE: Canada, U.S. agree to cut methane emissions as Trudeau set to meet Obama

For his part, Trudeau affirmed the time-honoured axiom of Canada-U.S. relations: that he’ll work with whichever party wins the White House because “the friendship between our two countries goes far beyond any two individuals or any ideologies.”

Starting last week in Vancouver with a first ministers’ meeting with the premiers, Trudeau has begun to build climate policy momentum in multiple forums that might survive the electoral cycles of any single constituency.

He and Obama announced their intent to reduce methane emissions in the oil and gas sector, cut hydrofluorocarbons, stabilize commercial airline emissions and align emission standards for heavy-duty vehicles. They’re also co-ordinating strategies in the Arctic.

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Their joint communique also encourages “sub-national governments to share lessons learned about the design of effective carbon-pricing systems and supportive policies and measures. The countries will expand their collaboration in this area over time.”

Mexico will be formally invited aboard at a Three Amigos summit this June in Canada.

Trudeau and Obama emphasized “the importance of the U.S. and Canada continuing to co-operate closely with Mexico on climate and energy action and commit to strengthen a comprehensive and enduring North American climate and energy partnership.”

A White House “Arctic science ministerial” meeting next fall, involving multiple Arctic nations, will attempt to keep the momentum rolling.

The Canadian Electricity Association lauded the communique as “part of the foundation for an eventual North American agreement on energy and the environment.”

Scott Vaughan, president of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, said the common ground staked out by Trudeau and Obama is the “the first time in 15, 16 years that you’ve got two political leaders in Canada and the U.S. that are of the same mind to be able to talk about climate.”

“Trudeau’s clearly a new generation of leader and you can see that effect in Washington now.”

Vaughan, Canada’s former environment commissioner, said the Canada-U.S. alignment with Mexico could eventually lead to the creation of a continent-wide carbon-trading market. His organization is already is working on a joint project with Mexico and the U.S. Department of Energy on a carbon-trading initiative.

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READ MORE: White House says Obama developing ‘special relationship’ with Trudeau

But there’s still a lot of work to be done, because there are 70 different political jurisdictions in the three countries that would have to be regulated, he said.

“Does a tonne (of carbon) in Illinois look the same way as a tonne in Chiapas and in Prince Edward Island? The basic foundational stuff is important.”

Vaughan said it is also significant that Obama and Trudeau acknowledge the importance of adaptation.

Canada announced $150 million towards the U.S.-led Power Africa initiative, which aims to increase access to electricity on a continent where almost three-quarters of its inhabitants lack access to plug-in power.

Stuart Hickox, the Canada director of One, a Washington-based international advocacy group, applauded Trudeau for finding a “clever way” to expand Canada’s assistance to Africa.

“We wouldn’t say that the need to adapt to climate change is what motivated this program, no, but it is certainly true that access to reliable, sustainable energy will help the poorest communities in Africa survive the effects of climate change,” said Hickox.

With files from Bruce Cheadle.

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