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While global climate talks flounder, domestic initiatives advance

An activist of British charity Oxfam pretends to eat a piece of coal as a protest aimed at 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as she sits between bags reading "Let Them Eat Carbon" Dec. 9 in Durban.

Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images/Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images

While global leaders were floundering in their climate negotiations at Durban last week, one man from British Columbia was quietly working the back rooms, explaining the virtues of his province's carbon tax.

The television cameras in Durban ignored B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake as he promoted the carbon tax, but some analysts believe the fight against global warming will advance faster if it concentrates on such domestic initiatives, rather than the struggle for a global treaty that always seems just beyond reach.

Some 90 countries around the world – from China to Norway – have launched plans to reduce carbon emissions. Australia approved a carbon tax this year that was partly inspired by the B.C. tax, and Beijing announced one of the world's most ambitious green technology plans. Those efforts seem to be progressing faster than the global treaty negotiations.

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"We've had some influence on what's going on around the world," Mr. Lake said in an interview in Durban. "We have essentially a real carbon price across the whole economy, and people are very interested in that."

At the United Nations level, the global talks seem to go in circles. Four years ago, a UN summit in Bali announced a "road map" toward a climate treaty. That process collapsed in 2009, and in Durban on Sunday that old road map was torn up and another one was announced, with a new target of 2020 for implementation.

Reaching a coherent agreement among the 194 countries in the UN process might be nearly impossible. It happened in the Kyoto negotiations in 1997, but the Kyoto treaty has now fallen apart, with only a small minority of countries still legally bound by it, and there's no sign of how to bridge the vast differences over a successor treaty.

"Each country is taking a narrow view of its interests, and so everyone is butting heads," said Matt Horne, director of the climate change program at the Pembina Institute. "Every week the science gets bleaker, and we're not making progress at a rate that responds to the alarm bells."

Once again, the latest talks descended into gruelling all-night sessions, culminating at 5 a.m. on Sunday when frazzled politicians were too fatigued to resist a weak and diluted agreement.

"Durban once again exemplifies the paralysis of the global climate talks," said Tony Clarke, executive director of the Polaris Institute. "What we need to do now, given this period of malaise, is to look at where best practices exist in national and sub-national settings and vigorously promote them, exerting new energies and pressures from below."

Radoslav Dimitrov, a University of Western Ontario professor who has studied the climate negotiations for years and was a member of the European Union delegation at Durban, said the UN talks have been a "miserable failure" in recent years – but the diplomatic failures are in dramatic contrast to the impressive progress at the domestic level.

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"It's now a business race," he said. "The reason why Europe and China are moving so aggressively is to reap the economic benefits. If Canada buries its head in the oil sands, sooner or later we'll be losing markets. We're digging our grave, economically."

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