BUSINESS

Breaking faith with the cult of Kyoto

STEVE MAICH June 5 2006
BUSINESS

Breaking faith with the cult of Kyoto

STEVE MAICH June 5 2006

Breaking faith with the cult of Kyoto

BUSINESS

STEVE MAICH

Canadians like to consider themselves an earth-loving people. When tourists comment on our clean city streets and vast unspoiled wilderness, our sense of patriotic superiority swells. As such, Canadians have developed a deep devotion to the Kyoto Protocol, and its mission to save the planet.

So, when Conservative Environment Minister Rona Ambrose walked into UN climate change meetings a couple of weeks ago and admitted Canada has no hope in Hades of meeting its Kyoto commitments, most Canadians were aghast. AMacleans.ca poll found more than 60 per cent of respondents considered the minister’s position “a cop-out.” The reaction of activists and pundits was far more severe. “Our international credibility is skydiving,” said Greenpeace’s Steven Guilbeault. Liberal Leader Bill Graham suggested the Conservatives set out to “destroy the system from within.” A parade of op-ed writers begged the Tories to reconsider. And the Toronto Star's Richard Gwyn perfectly channelled the smug self-regard of Canada’s chattering classes, concluding that Ambrose had embarrassed herself and the country.

Pretty harsh, but whenever a question of public policy is elevated to the level of religious belief, passions are bound to run high. Over the past few years, the protocol’s defenders have insisted that it represents the only viable plan to stop the scourge of global warming. And once you accept the notion that the survival of the planet hinges on the success of this initiative, no counter-argument —economic, political or otherwise—can hold any sway. Just as archaeological evidence wields no power over the faith of creationists, the holes in Kyoto’s framework do nothing to loosen its emotional hold over its believers. To them, the lines are clear: you are either with Kyoto or against the planet.

But when Rona Ambrose came clean to the UN, all she really did was shine a cold hard light on all the happy myths that have kept the pact alive for almost a decade, despite

showing virtually no progress toward its goal.

Since 1997, Kyoto has been presented as a broad international consensus among 163 countries committed to reversing climate change. A closer look reveals that it was never more than a loose coalition that meant very different things to different countries. At one end is Canada, which would have to slash emissions by a staggering 35 per cent by 2012 to comply. At the other end are countries like Russia which, thanks to the collapse of its industrial economy in the early 1990s, still has plenty of room to keep raising emissions within the confines of the pact. Then there were poor countries like India and China which signed, but only because they weren’t required to cut emissions at all. It was this vast inequity that led the U.S. to reject the deal in 2002, and to start looking for alternatives.

Proponents always promised that Kyoto

To environmental zealots you are either for Kyoto or you’re against saving the planet

would be followed by a sequel agreement imposing sharper reductions on all countries. But the developing world is having none of it. On the day after Ambrose disavowed Kyoto, India’s secretary of the environment said bluntly that climate change takes a back seat to his government’s priority of reducing poverty. A similar message has come from China, which already ranks as the world’s second-biggest polluter and is well on its way to eclipsing the U.S. for top spot.

Even if Canada could meet its Kyoto target, it would cut less than one per cent from

the world’s greenhouse gases. The previous Liberal government knew that and tried to have it both ways—endorsing Kyoto on one hand while doing virtually nothing to meet its objectives. Activist groups like Greenpeace and the David Suzuki Foundation just kept preaching that every little bit helps, refusing to acknowledge the obvious: that Canada’s promise to do its “fair share” implied a gutwrenching cost in jobs and public spending, for a minuscule benefit to the environment.

Facing the facts, Ambrose has joined world leaders including Australia’s John Howard, and yes, George W. Bush, calling for a third path. One promising option is the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development, which essentially replaces Kyoto’s mandatory cuts and unenforceable penalties with a framework based on incentives, shared technology and co-operation. Environmentalists ridicule the

partnership as a stunt by countries like India, China, Australia and the U.S. to deflect criticism and delay action. It’s true that, so far, the plan is little more than a statement of shared principles, but it has two key advantages over Kyoto. First, it has the participation of the world’s biggest polluters —the U.S. already spends more than US$5 billion a year on climate change research and technology development, and the partnership promises to help spread the results of that investment around the world. Second, it recognizes that if global warming is to be stopped, the world needs to find a way to satisfy three goals: helping poor countries reduce poverty; protecting thriving economies in the West; and doing both while cutting reliance on burning fossil fuels. Kyoto’s singular focus on the third objective left everything else to wishful thinking.

Demanding answers to all three isn’t a copout, it’s vital. Faith has its place, and prayer certainly can’t hurt. But it’s no substitute for clear-eyed analysis, honesty and action. M