Canadian indecision may doom Kyoto Protocol

Published July 1, 2002

Canada’s drawn-out deliberation over whether to ratify the Kyoto Protocol is threatening to upset a carefully crafted, global environmentalist agenda.

The Canadian federal government’s decision to conduct Kyoto consultations through the rest of this year makes it extremely unlikely the protocol will go into effect as an international legal instrument during the Rio+10 summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, in late August. This failure will be a resounding setback for the global environmentalist movement, which is used to getting its way.

The Rio+10 summit—the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)—is supposed to set the work plan for the next decade of international environmental activism. Kyoto is by far the biggest action item on the agenda, since it puts control of energy use into the hands of anti-fossil fuel environmentalists.

As with everything in the climate change game, the Kyoto details are tricky and complex. In order to go into binding legal effect, the protocol requires that most, but not all, of the richest countries ratify it.

Kyoto: A numbers game

The protocol includes a list of the 34 most industrially developed countries, including Canada, of course, and their estimated 1990 emissions of greenhouse gases. Countries accounting for 55 percent of the listed total must ratify before the protocol becomes binding. This has become the critical numbers game.

The United States is by far the biggest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting country on the list, with 36.1 percent of the total. But the U.S. has dropped out on economic grounds, which means nearly every country left on the list must ratify before the protocol can go into effect. The swing margin is just 8.9 percent.

Australia, with 2.1 percent, has said it will not ratify without the U.S., bringing the margin to 6.8 percent. Canada has 3.3 percent, the loss of which would take the margin to 3.5 percent. If another large country, or a handful of small ones, do not ratify, the protocol cannot come into force.

On June 4, the Japanese cabinet approved documents to ratify the Kyoto accord, after the upper house of parliament voted 229-0 in favor of it on Friday. Also on Friday, the 15 countries of the European Union voted to ratify, bringing the total number of countries ratifying the treaty to 73. Those countries, however, represent just 36 percent of the estimated 1990 greenhouse gas emissions—short of the 55 percent level required for the protocol to go into effect.

To date almost no one else has ratified, and time is rapidly running out as far as Johannesburg is concerned. Canada’s decision to be thoughtful is likely to give some other countries pause. If Kyoto does not go into effect, very little of substance remains for the WSSD to consider.

Concessions to Canada may be key

Canada’s action is particularly galling to Canadian federal environment minister David Anderson, chairman of the governing council of the United Nations Environment Program, which owns the Kyoto Protocol. He is also a leading advocate of “global environmental governance,” a movement to create a green alternative to the World Trade Organization. The Kyoto Protocol is the flagship of the global environmental governance scheme, but Anderson has failed to deliver his own country.

Even worse, Canada is demanding new concessions, especially credit for clean natural gas exported to the United States. Canada supplies almost 20 percent of the gas used by the U.S., and that figure is projected to rise rapidly. The U.S. is building a huge fleet of gas-fired electric power plants, many of which will depend on Canadian gas, so this is not a trivial issue. Canada stands to make many billions of dollars through its natural gas deals with the U.S.

To his great credit, Anderson has defended Canada’s actions to the global green community. When he presented the gas export credit concept to the European Union in Banff he stood firm, despite the EU’s disbelief. Prime Minister Jean Chretien is backing him up.

This concession message is not likely to be lost on other countries when Kyoto negotiations reopen in October, and every country counts. So it remains to be seen whether the Canadian position is merely a temporary setback for the Kyoto Protocol, or the beginning of the end.

Unlike Canada, none of the other industrialized countries is openly discussing the issue. The United States—which, like Canada, is still growing economically—has recognized the absurdity of the Kyoto energy reduction targets and walked away. The European Union is so stagnant economically that Kyoto is not a problem. The former Soviet Union countries, thanks to their economic collapse, are hoping to sell billions of dollars worth of Kyoto credits to Canada and Japan.

The deep message is that Canada is in no position to meet the Kyoto no-growth targets, for which there is no scientific basis anyway, and should reject the protocol. Canada’s open consultation process may actually bring this truth out. But in the meantime, Johannesburg is probably a bust. Global environmental governance will just have to wait.

David E. Wojick, a journalist and policy analyst who resides in Virginia and Ontario, helped found the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. He can be reached by email at [email protected]