Canada’s Commitment to Failure


For more than two decades, industrialized nations have stumbled over the issue of runaway climate change. Many scientists and environmental advocates, however, were expecting a change after last month’s announcement by British Economist Nicholas Stern, who equated the cost of inaction to a sum greater than both World Wars and the Great Depression combined. But the results of November’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Nairobi, Kenya indicate progress is still not as imminent as many would hope.

The meeting was a chance for 165 countries to review the international greenhouse gas reducing Kyoto Protocol and set stricter targets for when the first phase ends in 2012. Not only were the talks tabled until next year, but the two main holdouts—Australia and the United States—continued their noncommittal stances.

While seemingly little has changed since the conference began, one new glaring setback did emerge. The Canadian government, which ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2002 under the previous liberal administration, unveiled its new “Made-In-Canada” alternative for the first time on the international stage.

Much like President Bush’s Kyoto alternative and inaptly named “Clear Skies Initiative,” Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s proposed Clean Air Act is filled with industry incentives, lax timetables, and no mention of the Kyoto commitments—something Environment Minister Rona Ambrose deemed “unachievable” in September. But negative press and opinion polls showing disapproval from the majority of Canadians essentially rendered the bill dead on arrival last month.

Despite all three opposition parties saying they will vote against it unless major changes are made, Ambrose supported the legislation and its anti-Kyoto stance at the conference in Nairobi and was promptly greeted with condemnation.

French Environment Minister Nelly Olin was the first to go public, saying “It’s a shock for us, and a shock for all who support Kyoto,” adding, “I don’t think one has the right, today, to not act.”

The Climate Action Network in Nairobi agreed, honoring Canada three times with the embarrassing “fossil of the day” award for its poor performance during the conference. Ambrose was also hit hard by a new German report last week that placed Canada among the world’s worst polluters, ranking it 51st out of 56 nations. The United States is the only major industrialized country ranked lower, rounding out the bottom with China, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

As Nicholas Stern has said since issuing his economic report, “We have the time and knowledge to act but only if we act internationally, strongly and urgently.” By stooping to the level of those perennial idlers and deniers, Canada may doom the only existing global approach to this global problem. But the story of how they got here is emblematic of the global challenge we are now facing.

A Deal With Big Oil

In the months leading up to the official signing of the Kyoto agreement, Canada’s energy industry threatened to shut down an $8.5 billion project in the oil rich sands of Northern Alberta unless the federal Liberal government could guarantee favorable emissions targets. When then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien finally revealed his plan to meet the climate change commitments, it was clear the oil lobbyists had won out.

In a letter to John Dielwart, Chairman of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Chrétien guaranteed “a maximum emissions reduction of 15 per cent in the oil and gas sector” and a system of intensity-based targets in order to reflect “the important and enduring principle that no sector will be treated inequitably.”

This sliding scale approach allowed manufacturers to grow and output an even greater amount of harmful emissions. They could also overshoot the targets and pay $15/ton in offset fees—a penalty that, according to the National Climate Change Process, should be closer to $250/ton.  

All this occurred under the pretense of ensuring “equality” for a sector that produces 50 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. Clearly, Chrétien’s deal was little more than a plea for oil companies to keep digging in Alberta.

Second only to Saudi Arabia in reserves, the oil sands are aiming to solve the world’s energy needs for the next century. Until the recent spike in oil prices, the process of withdrawing the Alberta oil had always been considered prohibitively expensive. Now, Prime Minister Harper, an Albertan himself, is touting Canada as an “energy superpower.”

The Public Perspective

This sort of talk has drawn the ire of most Canadians. According to a recent poll conducted by the international firm McAllister Opinion Research, 77 percent of Canadians want their government to meet or exceed its Kyoto targets by the 2012 phase one deadline. Interest in the overall issue of climate change has also seen a dramatic increase in the past year, moving from the fourth most cited concern among Canadians to the second, right behind air quality.

In an attempt to cover all its bases, Environment Minister Rona Ambrose has defended the Conservative government’s proposed Clean Air Act by saying, “We listened to Canadians and they told us they were concerned about worsening air quality and increasing emissions of greenhouse gases.”

While on the surface, this statement appears to be true, many critics consider it a two-faced approach that muddies the distinct differences between greenhouse gases and the pollutants that cause smog. Stephen Hazell, executive director of the Sierra Club in Canada, called the legislation “smog and mirrors,” pointing out the one firm but distant promise of reducing emissions by between 45 percent and 65 percent below 2003 levels come 2050. The Kyoto Protocol, of course, would essentially do this in just the next few years.

While the Clean Air Act addresses Canadians’ number one concern, it should be noted that under the Environmental Protection Act, smog has been heavily regulated for over 30 years, making today’s vehicles 99 percent cleaner than those in the pre-regulation days.

The fact that this legislation does virtually nothing to improve Canada’s environment only confirms what most Canadians already believed. Just weeks before the Harper government presented its “Made-In-Canada” alternative, an Ipsos Reid poll found that two-thirds of Canadians expected the Conservative government to fail in its effort to combat global warming and blamed the energy industry for making matters worse.

Even though the bill is expected to receive a significant overhaul or be rejected this week, no form of Canadian government has managed to seize on the public’s desire to tackle climate change. Whereas it should be nearing six percent below 1990 levels, greenhouse gas emissions are currently more than 30 percent above Kyoto targets, which is a dangerous position considering the science that puts Canada at the heart of the issue.

Arctic Ignorance

In early October, a group of Inuit Elders and hunters from the Arctic gathered at Parliament Hill in Ottawa to alert the public that climate change has reached a new crisis level. With the ice coming later and later each winter, Inuit are having difficulty with hunting, fishing, and the basic sharing of food. As one Elder put it, “We are seeing the destruction of our way of life.”

The 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment essentially confirms that description, concluding that the Arctic is warming at a faster rate than anywhere else on Earth, due mostly to human involvement. And now, a new study in September’s Nature magazine has given reason to think that’s only the beginning.

Warming already underway is causing the permafrost that covers more than 50 percent of Canada’s land mass to melt and release methane and carbon dioxide. These gases are responsible for creating the greenhouse effect, which will lead to further melting in what’s being called “self-perpetuating climate time bomb.”

Although much of this land mass is uninhabited, there are about 45,000 Inuit scattered across 53 Arctic communities. And while they’ve always been geographically isolated from Canada’s mostly urban population, the Inuit are just now beginning to feel politically isolated.

They were denied representation in Nairobi by the Canadian government and received no consultation from the Conservatives about the proposed Clean Air Act, which most Northerners condemn for its failure to address the issues of climate change. And, as of last month, the Canadian government withdrew its two ambassadors to the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an international organization representing Inuit from Russia to Greenland. Former Ambassador Mary Simon described the move, “as a signal to other Artic nations that we are giving less priority to the North and Artic issues.”

While this may sound like another sad story for the native people of North America, it’s also a warning to all other nations. What is happening in the Arctic will have severe effects on the rest of the planet, causing sea levels to rise, extensive famine, drought, and the spreading of diseases.  

NASA’s leading climatologist Dr. James Hansen has given the world just ten years to take decisive action against climate change and minimize the damage already under way. But the key, as Nicholas Stern said, is an international effort. And the Kyoto experience proves that it must also be a concerted and unanimous effort.

When countries are left to pick and choose their own methods of implementation, business will always get more than its fair say. It’s time all nations—particularly the worst industrialized polluters—take action and make an investment in our future, instead of an industry that’s already destroying it.

Bryan Farrell is a freelance journalist in New York and researcher at Rolling Stone magazine.

Leave a comment