OTTAWA - Canada brushed aside a direct public demand Wednesday by the visiting United Nations chief and reiterated that it will not make climate change a priority agenda item when it hosts the G20 summit next month.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper stuck to his G20 plan to keep the summit's focus squarely on the global economic recovery after he met UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his Parliament Hill office.
Ban said he wanted climate change front and centre on the agenda when Canada hosts the G20 summit next month in Toronto. Ban also exhorted the Conservatives to live up to the greenhouse-gas reduction targets Canada negotiated under the Kyoto Protocol.
"Canada has a special role and special responsibility to play. That is what I am going to emphasize here," Ban told about 500 diplomats, civil society leaders and academics in a packed hotel ballroom before meeting Harper.
"I urge Canada to comply fully with the targets set out by the Kyoto Protocol. You can strengthen your mitigation target for the future."
Harper has rejected the Kyoto Protocol, which was negotiated by the previous Liberal government and calls for a six per cent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2020 based on 1990 levels.
The Conservatives have pledged a 17 per cent reduction by 2020, based on 2005 levels, which is in line with U.S. targets.
An advisory panel has told Harper to play down climate change at the G20, essentially telling him it is too ambitious a topic to tackle now. The prime minister is hosting the G20 in Toronto as well as a G8 leaders' summit in Muskoka, Ont., north of the city.
Harper's spokesman Dimitri Soudas said Ban had a cordial 45-minute conversation with his boss, but the secretary-general failed to convince the prime minister to push climate change to the top of the G20 agenda. Soudas said climate change would be discussed, but not as a priority item.
"Having a discussion of the issue on the margins of the G20 summit is important. But the primary focus of the G20, as per its mandate, is to discuss the economy and that is the government's number one priority," said Soudas.
Soudas said the government is focused on a post-2012 climate framework once Kyoto expires. He said the previous Liberal government "never had a plan to implement it."
Harper's political opponents piled on in the House of Commons, using Ban's comments to push for a greater profile for climate change during next month's talks.
"He's right to say that climate change poses an existential threat to all of us," said NDP Leader Jack Layton.
After his own meeting with Ban, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said Harper should make climate the lead issue at the G20 meeting.
"There are talks ongoing among G20 and G8 members and I expect further discussion on that very important topic," said Harper.
Ignatieff said Ban told him Canada has a leadership role to play "especially in contributing to mitigating the catastrophic effects of climate change on poorer countries."
"This is a leadership issue. Will the prime minister step up and commit today in the House of Commons to lead on the issue of climate change?"
Harper said the G20 will focus on the global economy but climate change won't be ignored.
"I anticipate that a range of subject matters will be talked about, including climate change. This government's position is clear. We support the Copenhagen Accord, which for the first time includes all major emitters."
Ban said he asked Harper to press fellow G8 leaders to live up to their previous aid commitments to poor countries and to bring money to the table in Muskoka.
"I'm going to ask the Prime Minister Harper, as chair of the G8, that he must make sure that G8 leaders come . . . with their commitment delivered. I hope Prime Minister Harper will work on the phones before they come."
The feisty South Korean also applauded the Harper Conservatives for making Third World child and maternal health a signature issue at the G8, but he reminded his audience it was the UN that has been pushing that for years.
"I'm pleased that Canada has joined our efforts on child and women's health," he said.
The secretary-general steered clear of the government's controversial position not to fund abortion-related projects under the initiative, deflecting questions on the issue after his meeting with Harper.
Ban reiterated the consensus of the 1994 UN population conference in Cairo that endorsed reproductive health, but did not explicitly endorse a wholesale right to abortion.
Ban said the UN does not endorse making abortion legal in countries where it is not.
"Universal access to reproductive health is recognized world wide as an effective means to improve maternal health," he said.
"Where abortion is legal, it should be safe."