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Forget Kyoto, let's clean up our air Add to ...

Now that the Kyoto Protocol is signed, sealed and delivered, it seems that all sides in the debate have gotten, perhaps not what they want, but most of what they need. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Environment Minister David Anderson can crow about having prevented the Earth from turning into a giant toaster. Greenpeace, the New Democrats and small furry animals will praise their names. Meantime, Premier Ralph Klein of Alberta can assert the treaty is mere symbolism, since Ottawa's implementation plan has no teeth. The titans of the oil patch will laud Mr. Klein.

It's a classic political compromise, in which everybody can claim some share of the victory. Everybody, that is, but the Canadian people.

For if we look beyond the rhetoric and consider what we've gained from this exercise, and how we stand to benefit in the years ahead, we can't help but notice that the Protocol amounts to a big fat zero -- less, when one factors in the costs. Ironically, some of the greatest setbacks may be environmental.

In the three months leading up to the passage of Kyoto by Parliament last week, Canada's environmental lobby was in full throat. The David Suzuki Foundation, the Sierra Club and others mounted a spirited campaign to squelch any possibility of the government's delaying or backing away. Any news article questioning either the science or the architecture of the agreement provoked a flurry of impassioned rebuttals.

But in the past week, stormy debate has given way to eerie calm. The environmental lobby, perhaps secure in the knowledge that it has fought the good fight and won, is taking a breather. And many ordinary Canadians -- those who've taken to heart the notion that passing Kyoto would slow or reverse global warming and "clean up" our environment -- are no doubt also relieved.

But that relief is misguided.

If excessive concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane, caused by human activity, are indeed warming the planet (and there remains much debate on the subject), the Kyoto Protocol is no solution. For a reason, we need look no further than the latest economic data from China.

This year, for the first time, Chinese auto sales exceeded one million. According to Reuters, 1.02 million models were sold from January through November -- a 55.4-per-cent jump from the previous year. But despite this stellar growth, auto ownership is still extremely rare. Last year, China had about 1.5 cars per thousand people, compared with a global average of 90. Now combine this with Chinese economic growth this year of about 8 per cent, and China's stated goal of quadrupling its gross domestic product by 2020.

China -- like India, Mexico, Brazil, and every other developing nation -- is not aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 6 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. China wants to grow its still-tiny middle class as quickly as it possibly can. Many of China's billion citizens believe -- and who can blame them -- that they finally have a shot at some of the consumer luxuries that Westerners have long taken for granted. The niceties of Western environmental idealism will not dent that ambition one iota, now or in the future.

Even if the United States were a part of the Kyoto Protocol -- which it isn't -- any effort to reduce human-induced carbon dioxide emissions is doomed without Brazilian, Indian and Chinese participation. These countries are too populous, and poised for too much growth, to ignore. And that's aside from Russia and the former countries of the Eastern Bloc, which, although granted dispensation under Kyoto, remain major carbon emitters (Russia produces about 17 per cent of global emissions, compared with 2 per cent or so for Canada).

Kyoto's adherents have frequently insisted that the accord, although flawed, is a "good first step" along the road to environmental responsibility.

That ignores a fundamental truth of politics and economics, which is that failure breeds disillusionment. As Kyoto's failure becomes clear, support everywhere will fade.

If not Kyoto, then what? The answer is obvious: Take aggressive and concrete steps to reduce automobile use in the Greater Toronto Area, and other urban centres. Impose a clean-air tax on sport utility vehicles, which account for half the new-car market and consume 30 per cent more fuel than ordinary cars. Invest in urban public transit and the national rail network. In other words, forget about setting nebulous global targets we can't possibly meet, to solve a problem whose nature remains unclear. Just clean up the air we breathe. mdentandt@globeandmail.ca

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