When Jean Chrétien’s Liberal majority swaggered back to Ottawa in September for Parliament’s opening, the anticipated horrors of climate change had next-to-zero political visibility. This was a businessfirst government, eager to enjoy the dividends from wrestling the deficit tiger to the ground. But a mere two months later, global warming politics has become the government’s major headache, a divisive, tormenting problem that even Chretien’s endemic optimism cannot wish away. By Dec. 10, delegates from nearly 160 countries now meeting in Kyoto, Japan, are supposed to agree on binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to temper potential climate changes. There is wide agreement in Ottawa that such a treaty is a noble idea— or a politically popular one at any rate. But the consensus evaporates over how much to reduce emissions, how fast, and just plain how. Late last week, after some delegates had already left for Kyoto, the cabinet finally agreed on Canada’s goal: to reduce emissions to their 1990 level by the year 2007—-three years faster than the American deadline of 2010 but slower than Western European commitments. The cabinet also decided against having Cana-
da sign any legally binding convention.
Why the delay? Chrétien loyalists hint darkly that officials did not produce proper policy options in time to allow for an earlier decision. But the Liberals had four years to prepare for Kyoto, and in that time largely ignored Canada’s tougher 1992 commitment to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2000. Instead, emissions have risen by about 11 per cent since the start of the decade, and the lack of action has been costly. Aside from having to endure daily beatings from opposition parties and interest groups, the Liberals have forfeited Canada’s international role as an honest broker on environmental issues.
“At least in the past we had a reputation for being pragmatic," said one Canadian official involved in the negotiations. "But it has taken so long to get our act together that we have no credibility any more.”
Meanwhile, preparatory meetings of bureaucrats produced huge amounts of text for the Kyoto talks, but little anyone could agree on. It looked as if any deal at all would require extraordinary efforts by political leaders, and the toughest issues— like monitoring and enforcing compliance—may be left for another day. The underlying fears are not environmental but economic, said a Canadian delegate. “Nobody is waking up at night worrying about great floods and storms,” he said. “Everybody is scared about what happens to their competitiveness and trade if they make cuts and the other guy doesn’t."
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