Backwards to Climate Chaos or Forwards to Climate Action?

By John Dillon

Environment Minister Peter Kent wants out of the Kyoto Protocol (KP), which he describes as “ineffective and unfair because the major emerging economies [particularly China and India], still want to consider themselves … to be developing countries.” China insists that developed countries must commit themselves to a new round of emission reductions under the KP before developing countries will make their own legally binding commitments to emission reductions. As Chinese vice-Minister Xie Zhenhua said in Durban on Sunday “If [parties to the UN climate convention] fail to conscientiously implement what we have agreed … then how can we have political trust?”

Who holds the moral high ground in this standoff that threatens to scuttle the Durban climate negotiations?

Both India and China are recognized by the United Nations as developing countries. India is a low-income country whose average citizen is responsible for only 1.7 tonnes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions each year. The average Canadian emits 22.6 tonnes. While it is true that China has become the largest single GHG emitter, many of its emissions are due to its role as host to manufacturing industries whose products are exported to developed countries. At 5.5 tonnes per capita, China’s GHG emission rate is still only one fourth that of Canada.

Contrary to the notion that developing countries are unwilling to do their part to restrain emissions, their post-Copenhagen voluntary commitments to GHG reductions amount to 5.5 gigatons (billions of tonnes) by 2020 versus just 3.8 gigatons for all developed countries, assuming that developed countries adhere to the higher of their proposed pledges.

China has already reduced the carbon intensity of its economic output by 20% over the years 2005 – 2010 and has plans to achieve a 40% intensity reduction by 2020. If China meets this target, its emissions over the next ten years will be approximately 2.8 gigatons less than they would have been without intensity reduction measures.

Canada also boasts of efforts to reduce the GHG intensity of its fastest growing source of emissions – the tar sands. Environment Canada reports that the overall emissions intensity of the tar sands declined by 39% between 1990 and 2008. However, much of this reduction is due to the fact that more unprocessed bitumen is being exported to the United States instead of being refined in Canada. Recently, efforts to reduce tar sands GHG intensity have stalled while their overall emissions have increased due to growing production volumes. The Alberta government aims to have tar sands emissions reduced to 14% below their 2005 levels by 2050. However, this plan allows emissions to increase for another decade and then stabilize in 2020.

Canadian tar sands operations emitted about 45 megatons (million tonnes or Mt) of GHGs in 2009. Emissions from the tar sands are projected to grow by 62 Mt by 2020. This growth would eliminate almost all the 65 Mt emission reductions that Environment Canada projects would be achieved through government measures by that date.

China is investing over US$35 billion a year in renewable energy, more than any other country. Half of the new renewable energy capacity installed worldwide each year is located in China. Moreover, China plans to increase its investment in research and development from 1.5% of GDP to between 2% and 2.5% by 2015 with the aim of lowering its carbon footprint by developing new sources of energy and low-impact vehicles.

By contrast, the 2010 federal budget terminated funding for the successful ecoENERGY for Renewable Power program after it elapsed in January of 2010. Only $146 million out of the $1 billion Clean Energy Fund was designated for investments in renewable energy, while $800 million was earmarked for dubious Carbon Capture and Storage projects. However, the 2011 federal budget did include a relatively small $97 million investment over two years for technology innovation in the areas of clean energy and energy efficiency and $400 million for housing retrofits. A modest $7 million was set aside for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council to study climate change. This initiative was counteracted, to some degree, by a later decision to lay off Environment Canada scientists who were investigating the effects of climate change on agriculture, human health and water quality.

Canada’s stimulus spending plan in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis devoted a modest $3 billion to green projects while China devoted $221 billion to green infrastructure.

This is not to say that China is above reproach. British economist Nicholas Stern notes that if we are to have any hope of avoiding global warming of above two degrees Celsius, then China will have to reduce its overall emissions and not just the GHG intensity of its economy.

But is there any hope of persuading China, and other fast growing emerging countries, to go this extra mile if Canada actually pulls out of the Kyoto Protocol entirely on December 23rd as several media sources have reported? The fact that Mr. Kent will neither confirm nor deny these reports adds credence to the notion that Canada will announce its departure from the KP after Parliament and most news media have shut down for Christmas. [Under the terms of the KP, a country wishing to withdraw must declare its intention one year in advance, making the Dec. 23, 2011 date just a year and a week prior to the Dec. 31st, 2012 end of the first commitment period.]

If declared in non-compliance with its first round obligations, Canada would have to make up its shortfall plus a 30% penalty in the second commitment period. It would also be suspended from use of the KP’s emission trading system, including the Clean Development mechanism where “offsets” can be purchased from developing counties. Canada’s emission reduction shortfall from the first 2008-2012 commitment period is variously estimated at between 719 Mt and 890 Mt. The additional requirement to make up a further 30% of that amount would require an emission reduction in the vicinity of one gigaton, something that would be virtually impossible if the tar sands continue to expand.

Whereas China has identified with African countries calls for a second round of commitments under the KP, Africa’s lead negotiator accuses Canada of obstructionism.  South Africa’s high commissioner to Canada, Mohau Pheko, accuses Canada of “bullying.” She says “We must also recall that many things are linked to aid packages and there’s arm-twisting” as other African nations have told South Africa that they are being lobbied by Canada to reject the KP.

What angers climate justice seekers is that Canada is resolutely moving backwards. By repudiating its responsibilities, Canada’s actions could scuttle or delay any progress at the Durban talks. As time is running out we risk being trapped by runaway climate change that threaten to end life on Earth as we know it. I urge anyone who would dismiss this assertion as irresponsible fear mongering to read about the latest scientific studies cited in our most recent Briefing Paper: Arctic melting Sounds the Alarm for Life on Earth.

Filed in: Ecological Justice

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