Going Rogue: Canada and the Kyoto Protocol

So the Canadian government is apparently planning, according to numerous media reports, to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. The Environment Minister, Peter Kent, refuses to confirm or deny the reports.

The surprise should perhaps precisely be that this is not a surprise. Before the rumours, it was unthinkable that a government, especially a ‘good international citizen’ like Canada, would consider reneging on its legal commitments so brazenly. After them, it seemed obvious – of course they would.

But the Canadian national narrative of being a ‘good international citizen’ is so strong that we would expect surprise, outrage, or other strong reactions to be the dominant reaction to the rumours. Presumably there would be even stronger reactions to the announcement itself if and when it happens. (That said, the rumours included suggestions that the announcement would occur after Parliament has risen December 23rd is a Friday, so I’d suggest that 4.20 pm that day would be a likely time.)

There has, of course, been a good deal of outraged comment by opposition politicians and environmental groups. But the point is that many Canadians are either sleepwalking, taking Canada’s ‘good internationalist’ status for granted, or acquiescing more actively in this flouting of international law.

From a certain twisted point of view, the Government faces a genuine dilemma. If it stays in Kyoto, it will be the only country that will be in serious non-compliance with its obligations. I’ll say it again: the only country. A few others (like Japan or New Zealand) are falling short of their targets, but (a) not so far that they can’t buy credits via one of the mechanisms Kyoto set up (and that Canada bargained hard for); and (b) all of them have at least made some effort to get towards their target. Neither statement applies to Canada. It has taken Sarah Palin’s advice and gone rogue.

The problem is that Kyoto contains penalties for non-complying states. In any second commitment period (which Canada has already said it will not sign up for), Canada would have to take a hit on its target in that period to make up for its lacklustre performance (to be generous) in the first one.

If it leaves Kyoto, it will not be subject to these penalties—but it risks being seen as the country that causes global climate negotiations in general to collapse. With its reputation as a ‘good citizen’ already in tatters, this would shred the clothes enough to make the emperor completely naked.

But perhaps this is the point. Commentators have tended to take at face value the government’s claims that they want a global deal, so long as China and India also have targets. Perhaps these commentators miss the point; perhaps the government’s goal is precisely to make the negotiations collapse.

Why might we think this to be the case? First, this claim of “if China and India act” is clearly a ruse. A very good case can be made that those two countries are already doing more than Canada to stem the growth of their GHG emissions. Beyond the oft-mentioned rhetoric about China alluding to “a coal fired power station every XX minutes”, it is also probable that investment in wind, solar and energy efficiency is much higher in that country than in Canada (although comparable measurements are difficult to find). Indeed, attempts to compare countries’ performance tend to put Canada behind China in terms of performance, and way behind India. At any rate, it is definitely true that while the rate of GHG emissions growth has slowed in China since 1990, it has increased in Canada over that period (principally because of the oil sands).

So the ‘blame China’ ruse won’t wash, at least not as far as Canada is concerned. (Ironically, it is more plausible coming from the U.S., a country that never ratified Kyoto in the first place, but has more policies in place than Canada that are limiting their emissions growth rate). In fact, it makes more sense as a diversionary tactic to distract attention from the possibility that this government simply does not want a global deal at all. Not only do they not want to accept targets themselves, they don’t want others to do so either—primarily since this would get in the way of maximizing Canada’s short-term revenue from oil sands exports.

We have thus got to this pretty pass. A few years ago, you could put Canada on a par with Russia, say, in terms of our commitment to action on climate change. Now we are down at the bottom of the barrel with Saudi Arabia. Whether or not we withdraw formally from Kyoto, this is likely to remain the case. The question, then, is whether Canadians care about their country’s mendacious approach—either because they care about climate change itself, or because the idea of being a petrodollar state that doesn’t give two hoots for international law is anathema to their sense of who they are.


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