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"It's the Best We've Got"

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Issue: 31 Section: Environment Geography: Canada Topics: UN, climate change, Mackenzie Valley Pipeline

October 24, 2005

"It's the Best We've Got"

Kyoto Off To A Slow Late Start in Montreal

by Hillary Bain Lindsay

Environment Minister Stéphane Dion will be chairing upcoming international climate talks.
Jon Bennett, Director of Climate Action Network, is not prone to praise when discussing the international process to address climate change, "It is very slow. It is very laborious. It has its own timetable and doesn't respect the reality and urgency of what it's trying to deal with. However," he adds, "it has moved forward. And it's the best we've got."

Whether "the best we've got" will be enough to halt and reverse dangerous climate change remains to be seen. Since 160 countries agreed to the Kyoto Protocol in 1997—an international treaty that requires countries around the world to cut emissions that cause climate change—global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise, and Canada has been no exception. In fact, Canada has frequently been accused of blocking progress at the United Nations Climate Change Negotiations. According to Bennett, this has often been due to the country's attempt to pander to the demands of the United States.

President Bush has close ties with the oil industry, explains Bennett. "He is the US's oil advocate to stop the rest of us from weaning off fossil fuels." In attempting to please the Americans and protect its own interests, "Canada has supported a lot of conditions that the environmental community has not appreciated."

It was only when the United States announced that it would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol—and Canada ratified it anyway—that Canada's role in international negotiations began to shift. "Everyone knows that Canada is connected both economically and physically to the US, so it was a really big step to go ahead and ratify without them," explains Bennett. "It gave Canada a great deal of respect in the international community."

Those who want action on climate change are hoping this new trend will continue when Canada assumes the role of Chair at the next round of international climate change talks. From November 28th until December 9th, Montreal will be hosting the 11th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 1st Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (otherwise known as CoP11/MoP1). The talks are important, as they are the first to occur since the Kyoto Protocol entered into force in February of this year.

Environment Minister Stéphane Dion will be hosting the negotiations, and according to Matthew Bramely, Climate Change Director at the Pembina Institute, Dion has shown promising signs that he will take the role of Chair seriously. A speech given on behalf of the Minister at the Cologne Carbon Expo stated, "CoP11/MoP1 will be an important meeting, and we need to set the bar high…. Canada is firmly engaged in the global effort to address climate change and is determined to play a leadership role in the search for long-term solutions."

As Canada's greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise far above Kyoto targets, however, the country's commitment to addressing climate change may come into question in Montreal. "Will Dion be able to exert the leadership he needs to in light of Canada's progress on greenhouse gas emission reductions?" asks Bramely. Considering the urgency and complexity of negotiations, both Bramely and Bennett are hoping he will.

Dion will have to negotiate several delicate and critical matters as Chair, says Bennett, one being the problem of Protocol compliance. The Kyoto Protocol is legally binding, but to date there has been no agreement on how to enforce compliance. "There is the possibility of a having a system of penalties and fines [for those countries that do not meet Kyoto Protocol targets]," explains Bennett. "The problem is that any country can withdraw from the Protocol with one year's notice." The result is the regrettable situation in which it makes more economic sense for a country to withdraw from the treaty than to try to reach its Kyoto goal but fail.

The question of Protocol compliance will be an especially delicate one for Dion, considering Canada's poor progress on emission reductions thus far. By 2012, industrialized countries that ratified the Kyoto Protocol should have collectively decreased greenhouse gas emissions to 5.2% below 1990 levels. Canada's emissions are now 20% higher than they were in 1990.

The reasons for the painfully slow progress are complex, says Bramely, and closely tied to the global economic system. "Greenhouse gas emissions go to the heart of an energy economy. Any constraints on emissions lead to constraints on the energy industry, and that underpins the whole economy." As a result, says Bramely, the industry—specifically coal and oil— is lobbying hard to protect its interests.

In a recent New York Times article on the environmental impact of the Alberta oil sands and the expected sextupling of the current daily production—of 1 million barrels of oil a day—by 2030, Minister Dion admitted, "There is no environmental minister on earth who can stop the oil from coming out of the sand, because the money is too big."

Whatever big money is saying, big science—or what Dion himself calls "the most authoritative scientific advisory body on climate change science in the world," the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—has been saying the same thing for years. Humans are causing climate change, and unless we seriously curb our emissions, we're in big trouble. "The science is telling us that if we're to prevent dangerous climate change we need to achieve reductions in emissions of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 and 25% below 1990 levels by 2020," says Bramely.

Bramely hopes Dion will keep these kinds of targets in mind when he kick-starts talks for the post 2012 emission reduction targets. But right now, there are no actual targets. Coming to consensus on what they should be, and who should commit to them, could prove rather difficult, considering that some countries, like Canada, have not yet met their first set of targets; other countries that have contributed the least to climate change, like Bangladesh, are suffering the most; up-and-coming developing countries, like India and China, are still plagued by poverty but poised to surpass the United States as leading emitters; and the United States is doing everything it can to destroy the process altogether.

Despite the overwhelming challenge, however, both Bramely and Bennett are genuinely optimistic. The tide has turned, they say. It is now no longer a question of if, but when.

If "when" proves soon enough to halt and reverse climate change, "it will go down in history as one of the greatest achievements of humankind," says Bennett.

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