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Hitting Bottom – Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol – Published in the Toronto Star

Published December 16, 2011

by iris_author

This blog was originally published in Professor Mark Winfield's blog.

Yesterday’s announcement by federal environment minister Peter Kent of Canada’s intention to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol marks the country’s lowest point in the forty year history of modern global environmental diplomacy. The protocol, which Canada signed in 1997 and ratified in 2002, committed Canada to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 6 per cent relative to their 1990 levels by the 2008-2012 period.

Kent rolled out a familiar chain of justifications for Canada’s action – that Canada’s original targets were unreachable, that it was really the fault of the previous Liberal governments for failing to implement effective emission reduction strategies and that action by Canada was pointless unless the United States and rapidly developing economies like China and India were also subject to binding emission targets. The reality is that on the whole Kyoto has been far more a success than failure – most of the parties who were subject to binding emission targets under the protocol have either met or exceeded their goals. Canada is a among a relatively small number of parties, along with Australia, Norway, Spain and Ireland that failed to do so, and is alone in responding by withdrawing from the legally binding agreement.

As for Kent’s excuses, whatever the failings of the governments of Prime Ministers Chretien and Martin, the one thing that is certain is that Stepen Harper’s Conservative government has never really tried to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. The government has proposed a succession of strategies and plans, but the only significant action it has actually taken has been to adopt more stringent vehicle fuel economy standards. Those rules only came into being because the government’s hand was forced by the incoming Obama administration in the United States. Indeed, the federal Commissioner for Environment and Sustainable Development has recently concluded that the government had exaggerated the likely impact on emissions of what other measures it had proposed (but never implemented) by a factor of ten.

The Prime Minister’s antipathy towards serious action on climate change was well known before he took office, having once described the Kyoto Protocol as a “socialist plot.” Until this spring the Conservative government’s hands were tied by the combination of persistently high levels of public concern for environmental issues, with a strong focus on climate change, a minority government situation, the arrival of a new administration in the United States that was apparently intent on taking some sort of serious action on climate change, and the threat of climate change legislation coming out of the US Congress that would impose penalties on US trading partners if they didn’t adopt greenhouse gas emission control regimes comparable to those put in place south of the border.

The decline in top-of-mind public concern for the environment as economic uncertainly has grown, the majority Conservative government produced by this May’s federal election, the disarray of both the federal NDP and Liberal opposition as both parties search for new leaders, and the hamstringing of the Obama administration and elimination of the threat of US climate change legislation as a result of the Republican majority in the US House of Representatives produced by the 2010 mid-term elections all combined to provide an apparently perfect window for the government to make its long dreamt of move on Canada’s international climate change commitments.

The costs of the government’s actions are still unclear. Clearly the chances of any serious effort from the federal government to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions have become more remote than ever. This is despite the overwhelming environmental and economic evidence in favour of early action and with respect to the consequences of inaction presented by the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy many others.

The international reaction (Canada’s decision is being given much more prominent play in the international media than in Canada itself) has been very strongly negative from both developed and developing countries. It seems unlikely Canada will have much company in its decision to formally withdraw from the international legal framework on climate change that does exist, and it remains to be seen to what extent the consequences of Canada’s status as an environmental pariah state will spill over onto other files.

Domestically the government is operating on an assumption that its own core voters have limited concern for environmental issues and, unlike the majority of Canadians, accept the government’s consistent zero-sum framing of the relationship between environmental sustainability and economic prosperity. The government’s environmental performance is an obvious potential wedge issue against the Conservatives in the hands of a new Liberal or NDP leader. If such a person can also persuade Ontario, Quebec, and BC voters that a federal government whose fundamental economic strategy is promoting fossil fuel exports from Alberta and Saskatchewan does not serve their interests well, the Conservatives could be in serious electoral trouble.

The basic elements of a cost-effective greenhouse gas emission reduction strategy for Canada have been well understood and articulated for some time. Carbon pricing, either through a carbon tax or cap and trade system, needs to be established; subsidies for fossil fuel development eliminated; progressively stronger energy efficiency standards for vehicles, buildings, equipment and appliances adopted; better integration of land-use and transportation planning is needs in urban areas to reduce automobile dependency; the massive carbon storage capacity of Canada’s boreal forest needs to be protected; and major investments made in low-impact renewable energy technologies. A meaningful adaptation strategy to deal with the climate change that is already happening is needed as well. What is clearly missing is the political leadership to implement such a strategy and put Canada on a path towards environmental sustainability and economic prosperity.

Posted in: Blogs | Sustainable Energy