Sierra Club of/du Canada

The Kyoto Debate: Separating rhetoric from reality

By Elizabeth E. May
Executive Director
Sierra Club of Canada

Note: A different version of this article appeared in the December 2002 issue of 'Policy Options'

Since the Prime Minister’s confirmation in Johannesburg of Canada’s intent to ratify before year end, the intensity of the Kyoto debate has certainly increased. It has not, unfortunately, uniformly led to a deeper public understanding. In fact, as huge amounts of money are thrown into last minute scare tactics from the anti-Kyoto forces, it is harder to sort out rhetoric from reality. The most frustrating part of the propaganda campaign has been the claim that the Government of Canada is “rushing to ratify.” The notion that there has been any haste in confronting the threat of climate change in Canada would be laughable if it were not so dangerous. In walking through the key milestones leading to Kyoto ratification, the pace has been leisurely.

I clearly come to this debate as no unbiased observer. I became convinced that climate change was the largest looming threat to humanity, civilization, and potentially all life on Earth, sometime during my tenure working within the Mulroney government. From 1986-1988, I worked as Senior Policy Advisor in the office of the Federal Environment Minister, Tom McMillan. My background in environmental issues had taken me from grassroots campaigns against pesticide spraying and nuclear energy into a policy position within the Minister’s staff. An issue of importance to the department’s scientists, but for which there was not as yet any environmental group campaign focus, was the threat of climate change.

In dry, technical briefings, the scientists from Environment Canada would review what was known, what was likely and what uncertainties remained about the impact of ever-increasing emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily from burning fossil. Canada was taking a lead in the quiet discussions among scientists globally. The Government of Canada offered to host a major scientific conference, in collaboration with the United Nations and the World Meteorological Programme. The conference, “The Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security” took place in a late June Toronto heat wave in 1988. The public and media impact likely made many Canadians aware of the issue for the first time. The debate at the conference was largely whether the climate changes which were already being observed in the late 1980s were attributable to human-caused (anthropogenic) forces. One of Canada’s most distinguished and conservative scientists, the late Dr. Ken Hare, was the first expert to stake his reputation on the fact that climate change was already upon us.

By conference end, scientists from all over the world agreed on a consensus statement and a target for emission reductions. The statement opened, “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment, whose ultimate consequences could be second only to global nuclear war.” The target: global reductions of carbon dioxide emissions to 20% below 1988 levels to be achieved by 2005.

Within the year, the United Nations established an international scientific peer review group. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created to review the emerging science and provide advice to policy makers. The IPCC was comprised of scientists appointed by their governments. Their conclusions require an enormous effort at consultation, negotiation, and testing of evidence in order to report a consensus assessment of the science. One thing the IPCC is not is an advocacy group. It does not present the worst case scenario. The potential for nasty surprises is recognized, but the reported warnings are based on a consensus which is, by definition, conservative.

By 1990, the United Nations General Assembly set in motion the negotiations leading to the Rio Earth Summit and the first global treaty on climate change. The Toronto target (20% below 1988 levels by 2005) became a starting point for negotiations. Canada, with then Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard taking the lead, set a less ambitious target: freezing emissions. Canada committed that our emissions in 2000 would be no higher than they were in 1990.

Two years later, the largest gathering of heads of government in the planet’s history gathered in Rio and agreed upon the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC). Due to last minute pressure tactics from then-President George Bush, the treaty was completed without any targets or deadlines. (Bush threatened that if deadlines and targets were included, he would boycott the Earth Summit: “The American lifestyle is not on trial,” he famously proclaimed.) The FCCC was signed and ratified by virtually every nation on Earth, including Canada and the United States.

In the FCCC the nations of the world accepted that climate change was a serious threat and that efforts should be undertaken to avoid a build up of greenhouse gases to “dangerous” levels. It also set in motion the negotiating process to get the world to mandated targets and deadlines. This process takes place within the Conference of the Parties (COP), in which every nation which has signed and ratified participates. Mulroney was responsible for the signing and ratification of the FCCC, but is has been the Chrétien government that has negotiated through the various COPs.

The Chrétien Record

There was every reason to expect faster action to reduce greenhouse gases with the election of the Chrétien Liberals. The 1993 Red Book promised to meet the Toronto target, obtaining 20% reductions against 1988 levels by 2005. Compared to the stabilization goal of the Mulroney government, the Chrétien Liberals, with Environment critic Paul Martin playing a key role, seemed destined to over-take the Tory environmental lead.

Sadly, the last ten years have been characterized by one step forward, two steps back. While Canada continued to move internationally toward mandated reductions through a binding agreement, attempting actual emission reductions took a back burner. Largely to appease Alberta interests, the Prime Minister undercut his first Environment Minister, Sheila Copps, to buttress his Alberta based Minister of Natural Resources, Anne McLellan. The impact was to leave business and industry convinced that it was business as usual. Greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise. In fact, on a per capita basis, through the 1990s, Canadians became more energy wasteful, not less.

Nevertheless, Sheila Copps negotiated a mandate leading to Kyoto that established the importance of following the successful model of the Montreal Protocol to reduce ozone depleting substances. To protect the ozone layer, the international community had agreed that the most important first step was for the industrialized countries, which had caused the problem in the first place and which had the resources to innovate and develop alternatives, to take on reduction targets, while leaving developing countries to allow emissions of ozone depleting substances to rise in the short term. It had succeeded with the subsequent ozone protocols accelerating reductions in industrialized countries while bringing in the developing countries to cut back as well. The same approach was to be taken for the reduction of global greenhouse gases. What seemed non-controversial at the time has clearly had an unforeseen public relations impact (more on this later.)

By COP3 in Kyoto, Canada had spent five years in multi-stakeholder consultations on how we would reduce emissions. The provinces had been consulted and a target set of 3% below 1990 levels for our negotiating team in Kyoto. Chrétien was in Russia when he got a call from U.S. President Bill Clinton. Clinton reportedly asked Chrétien to help break a predicted impasse in Kyoto. The European nations wanted the protocol to mandate reductions on the order of 15%. Canada, the U.S. and Japan were only prepared to move much more slowly. Clinton asked Chrétien to offer deeper cuts in order to be able to achieve success in Kyoto. Chrétien agreed, but allegedly obtained Clinton’s support for some Canadian loopholes – credits for our forests (for the benefits of holding carbon out of the atmosphere) and for the export of greener technology. Chrétien’s much reported “Beat the Americans” negotiating mandate to Canada’s delegation was strategic collaboration with the US, not competition.

In any event, by the conclusion of Kyoto, the US had taken on a 7% target. Canada was committed to 6% reductions, but as then Environment Minister Christine Stewart explained to angry provinces, the 6% target was really the same as the provincially agreed negotiation mandate of 3%. Once you counted in all the loopholes Canada had achieved with US support, the amount of reduction required would be about 3% below 1990 levels.

Environmental groups bemoaned the weak target. Counting credits from various loopholes, Canada was committed to a very small advance over the Mulroney stabilization target, to be delivered over ten years late. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate proclaimed that it opposed ratifying any agreement which left out developing countries. In a move that had all the earmarks of messages developed through focus groups, the forces of Big Carbon had found their wedge issue. They did not have to be against action on climate change – just appeal to a North American sense of fairness/selfishness. It has been virtually impossible to communicate through the media the precedent of the Montreal Protocol and all the reasons why leaving emission reduction targets to poorer countries until later had not been accidental, but a deliberate negotiating mandate since 1993.

Since Kyoto, we have experienced more of the same. Carbon dioxide emissions continue to climb. Canada has sought and obtained even more loopholes, which the government prefers to call “flexibility mechanisms.” A new multi-stakeholder, federal provincial consultation process was created. To date, over $20 million has been spent on such processes, while the positions of the key antagonists remain unchanged. In an effort to mollify Ralph Klein, the federal government placed the Government of Alberta as the co-chair of the process to write our implementation plan. Issue Tables met sector by sector hoping the oil industry would come to consensus with wind energy, car makers with environmentalists. The magical consensus did not emerge. In May of this year, the Alberta Government quit the process and blamed the federal government for not having delivered the implementation plan. The plan had been due for over a year and a half. Alberta’s role as co-chair is certainly suspect in the failure of the process to deliver.

But, the money spent over the last five years was not entirely wasted. Canada now has a vast amount of information about how a wide range of emission reduction measures will impact the economy, impact on jobs, and provide cleaner air. The Assessment and Modeling Group has run economic model after economic model. Even with pessimistic assumptions built in, every region and every province of Canada experiences continued economic growth under Kyoto. The distorted threats of job losses from the anti-Kyoto crowd come from estimates of the difference in employment between economic growth of 30% without Kyoto and about a percentage point less with Kyoto. Even then, those future hypothetic job losses are more than offset by the 1.8 million hypothetical future job gains under Kyoto.

The U.S. Position

Of course, discussions of the last five years are entirely incomplete without including the Bush factor. In late 2000, the 6th COP in The Hague was in trouble. Canada was holding out for more loopholes. The Europeans were intransigent (and disgusted with the efforts to undermine the Protocol). The Hague COP ended in an adjournment in hopes things would go better once the session reconvened. It might have done, if not for the butterfly ballots and hanging chads and judges placed on the U.S. Supreme Court by former President George Bush.

By mid December 2000, it was clear the White House was going to the Republicans. Still, it was not automatically clear that Kyoto was in trouble. George W’s election platform actually set more ambitious greenhouse reduction targets than Al Gore. Newly appointed head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman explained to international gatherings that the US would continue to work toward Kyoto. When George Bush announced to the contrary in March of 2001, it was evident he had not bothered to alert Whitman. White House press secretary Ari Fliesher is reputed to have predicted that withdrawal from Kyoto would be a one headline, one day media event. He also explained the White House view. The American lifestyle is based, he explained, on access to cheap and abundant energy. It involves the freedom of driving where you want when you want. “The American way of life is blessed.”

Interestingly, Chrétien wasted no time in reconfirming Canada’s commitment to Kyoto following the Bush rejection. In fact, when Environment Minister David Anderson was unable to attend the COP6 meeting’s continuation in July 2001 in Bonn, Chrétien dispatched his Deputy Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Herb Gray.

Kyoto’s survival hung by a thread. In order for the protocol to enter into force, it needed ratifications from 55 countries. In addition those 55 countries had to have collectively emitted 55% of the world’s greenhouse gases in 1990. When George W. walked away, he took 25% of the world’s 1990 greenhouse gas emissions with him. Saving Kyoto meant obtaining ratification support form at least the European Union, Japan and Russia.
With Chrétien in Genoa for the G-8 Summit, Gray was in Bonn. Reportedly, the two spoke every day. Canada helped keep Japan in the protocol. And Canada won even more concessions from the European Union – as much as 40 megatonnes of carbon credit for forests.

By the end of the Bonn COP6 continuation, the Kyoto Protocol was saved. At least in principle, enough nations were committed to ratification to bring the treaty into force as binding international law -- even without the United States.

Despite Bush’s rejection of Kyoto, however, the U.S. is doing a great deal to reduce greenhouse gases. Much if it is at the state level. California has passed a referendum mandating significant fuel economy improvements in its automobiles by 2007. The New England Governors have banded together with Canada’s Maritime Premiers in agreeing to air quality targets that fall in line with Kyoto. Many states in the U.S. have adopted Renewable Portfolio Standards which set a requirement for “green and renewable” energy within the state’s energy supply mix. As well, technological innovation is moving faster in the U.S. than in Canada. Due to a mix of these factors, the Pembina Institute study on Competitiveness and Kyoto found that if Canada failed to ratify Kyoto, we would become less competitive.

Eventually, the U.S. is likely to rejoin the emissions reduction effort. The U.S. remains an active player in global negotiations. Interestingly, at the COP8 meetings in New Delhi in October-November 2002, the U.S. urged developing countries not to take on targets. The transparency of its hypocritical claims that it would not ratify Kyoto as long as developing countries were not mandated to cut emissions is exposed as the U.S. argues against emissions reductions by any country. Clearly, anything is possible in U.S. politics. Strategically, one hopes that the next big negotiation to reduce emissions takes place in Houston. It is so much easier for Bush to argue against a protocol from a city whose name he cannot pronounce.

The atmosphere

The one player in all this to not give a damn about negotiations is the atmosphere. Piling on carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases means only one thing to the atmosphere – climatic destabilization. The global average temperature continues to rise. It has seen a one degree C increase in the last century, with the rate of warming three times faster in Canada’s Arctic. The melting of permafrost in the MacKenzie Valley basin was one of the first pieces of empirical evidence that climate change was upon us. The melting permafrost releases methane. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, providing a positive feed back loop, increasing yet more warming. Polar bears are starving; Peary Caribou are at risk of extinction -- both because of climate change. The loss of sea ice is striking. In fact, with a doubling of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the Arctic ice cap would become a seasonal event, with open ocean at the top of the world.

Sea level rise has begun with noticeable storm surge damage on Canada’s coasts. Extreme drought conditions plague Canada’s prairies. Losses to severe weather events continue to mount. Floods, ice storms, forest fires and drought are all on the rise. The climate models have proven to be remarkably accurate, with observations of climate change tracking tightly with what were mere projections in the briefings I received in 1986. On current emissions trends, we could see an absolute doubling of global; concentrations of carbon dioxide as soon as 2030. Meeting Kyoto targets only delays the doubling point by six years. Kyoto detractors use this as a point to criticize Kyoto and argue for inaction. In fact, this unsettling reality points only to the need to act aggressively and soon. Back to the IPCC warnings: to avoid a doubling of carbon dioxide we need 70% reductions.

To meet those levels of reductions we need to start now. Over the next five decades we will likely see steeper cuts with the entire global community of nations on board. A healthy transition away from our addiction to fossil fuels will likely take place. Economies will benefit from access to inexhaustible energy supplies of wind and solar, as well as from more efficient end use of the energy we generate by any means.

Perhaps, as people like Bjorn Lomborg, the self-proclaimed “Skeptical Environmentalist,” all this will happen by the natural action of the market. Perhaps fossil fuel exploitation will go the way of the dinosaur for purely economic reasons. There is not much evidence for that. We did not wait for the economy to solve acid rain or ozone depletion. The economy and rational economic choices kick in once the rules are clear. The Kyoto Protocol begins a long road to reduction. It starts with a fairly modest effort to monetize carbon. It is just the first step, and we should take it now.