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Members of the Indigenous Environmental Network demonstrate against the Shell oil company outside the South African Petroleum Refinery in Durban on Nov. 30, 2011. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters/Mike Hutchings/Reuters)
Members of the Indigenous Environmental Network demonstrate against the Shell oil company outside the South African Petroleum Refinery in Durban on Nov. 30, 2011. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters/Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

Campbell Clark

Quitting Kyoto could cost Canada down the road Add to ...

Few issues have attracted international attention to Canadian policy like the withdrawal from the Kyoto accord. There was a wave of international criticism. Will Canada face a real cost?

Probably not, for now. Some climate hits have already been taken. But there is a bigger potential cost down the road.

There’s politics in climate change and money at stake in talks. Moral arguments aside, the politics will matter.

Canada’s Kyoto withdrawal was an unusually big news story for a country that gets little mention, playing as a big deal in international media. It was a top Web-hit story for the BBC. Reporters kept asking U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern about Canada. Canada’s emissions story jumped to the masses. It could be the new seal hunt. Japan and Russia won’t meet Kyoto targets either, but Canada withdrew and got headlines.

There was also pointed criticism from countries such as China and France, and many more.

Still, some foreign officials don’t expect much short-term consequence for Canada. It wasn’t a surprise to them. They knew Canada wouldn’t reach its Kyoto target or buy carbon credits to comply. The Harper government wasn’t going to enter a second, post-2012 phase of Kyoto. They expect Mr. Harper to act when the United States does; the 2012 presidential election may be Canada’s climate policy-maker. Many foreign governments already saw a non-Kyoto Canada.

“There are political implications to abandoning Kyoto, but Canada has already suffered them,” said Michael Levi, an energy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

It causes diplomatic gripes and was probably a factor in Canada’s lost UN Security Council bid.

U.S. President Barack Obama delayed approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to 2013. It wasn’t just that people on the route didn’t like it. Opposition was organized by environmental activists fighting “dirty oil.” Mr. Obama didn’t need to alienate part of his base before an election year.

California fuel standards already punish oil sands crudes. Europe’s proposed Fuel Quality Directive would do the same. Europe doesn’t buy much Alberta oil, but Canada lobbied against it, fearing a precedent. But it’s now in the hands of EU bureaucrats who aren’t surprised.

But climate-change politics matter. Pressure for action lessened with the economic slowdown, especially in North America. But unless you believe climate science is wrong, you’d expect the pendulum to swing and public pressure to increase.

“Canada has to see the writing on the wall here,” said University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach. “We write off things like the Keystone XL decision as being all political. The question you have to ask is, ‘Why was it politically advantageous to do that?’ ”

It’s not just that the oil sands are a fast-growing source of emissions. Canada is 30 per cent over Kyoto targets, and the oil sands are just part. Canada is the eighth-largest greenhouse-gas emitter. China is largest, but per person its emissions are one-third of Canada’s. Ottawa has no regulation plan for big emitters. Canada can’t combat the story that the oil sands make us dirty.

One day, politics will bring cost. A 2009 U.S. bill to apply tariffs on goods for countries that fail to meet climate standards passed the House but died in the Senate. Mr. Levi expects Europeans or others to revive the idea.

Mr. Leach said: “I think you’re going see countries looking to apply blame by punishment.”

Canada says it wants a new treaty binding all major countries. Talks in Durban agreed it would be struck in 2015, with targets in effect by 2020. But in pulling out of Kyoto, Canada didn’t drop a lesser commitment made (along with the United States) in Copenhagen in 2009. Canada will be “hard-pressed” to meet that target, too, Mr. Levi said, and the diplomatic cost of a second pullback will be higher.

Canada doesn’t have a plan to meet that target. The United States is far closer. China, with lower per-capita emissions, may see advantage in an agreement. If politics makes a deal, a Canada viewed as a scofflaw won’t get much of a say in the consequences. It had better have a better story.

Campbell Clark writes on foreign affairs from Ottawa

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