Global climate talks got an inauspicious start in Durban, South Africa, on Monday with reports that Canada planned to withdraw fully from the Kyoto Protocol, a carbon-limiting multinational treaty first adopted in 1997 and scheduled to expire in 2012.
Canada had already signaled that it would take a hard stance at the Durban talks, where negotiators from around the world are hoping, among other things, to extend the Kyoto agreement with a new phase of emissions reduction commitments. But the suggestion that Canada also planned to abandon its commitments under the original Kyoto protocol, which the nation appears unlikely to meet in any case, was met with deep disappointment by advocates for climate action assembled at the conference.
"Canada has been very clear that it would not be taking on a second commitment period," said Tasneem Essop, a former provincial minister of environment, planning and economic development in the South African province of Western Cape and head of the delegation for the environmental group WWF. "But abandoning the first commitment period would mean that Canada will have absolutely no integrity in the international arena.
"I believe that there will be a backlash against Canada," Essop added in a phone call. "The NGOs are very angry about this news, and Canada will have to do a lot of hard work to regain credibility."
A report on Sunday by the Canadian broadcast network CTV suggested that the Canadian government, under the leadership of conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, had planned to make an announcement on the nation's withdrawal from Kyoto "a few days before Christmas." Speaking to reporters on Monday, Canadian representatives neither confirmed nor denied reports of its withdrawal plans, though the nation's environment minister, Peter Kent, asserted in no uncertain terms that "Kyoto is the past."
In a transcript of the press conference provided to The Huffington Post by a spokesman for the environment ministry, Kent also described Canada's participation in the Kyoto agreement as the folly of his government's predecessors. "Our government believes that the previous Liberal government signing on to Kyoto was one of the biggest blunders they made," Kent said, "particularly given they had no intention of fulfilling that commitment."
The Kyoto agreement -- which grew out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, 14 years ago -- bound more than three dozen industrialized countries to reduce emissions of certain greenhouse gases by a given percentage, averaging just over 5 percent, over 1990 levels. The protocol was to take effect only after at least 55 countries, representing 55 percent of global CO2 emissions, had ratified the document. Those conditions were fully met in 2004, and the treaty was entered into force in early 2005.
The emissions reductions were to be achieved between 2008 and 2012, the period during which countries would be required to report their progress. Developing nations were not required to make significant reductions, and the United States, accounting for nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions and by far the largest global per capita emitter, refused to participate.
Europe has made up the bulk of the emissions reductions, and collectively, industrialized countries are on track to achieve the Kyoto goal of reducing their emissions by at least 5.2 percent over 1990 levels. This is true even when including U.S. emissions, which have increased by more than 10 percent over 1990 levels, according to an analysis of global emissions inventories published in September by the Netherlands environmental ministry.
But much of the decrease in emissions is attributed to the collapse of East European and Russian economies in the post-Soviet era, as well as to the current global recession, which has helped to reduce industrial output and overall energy use in many countries. Establishing a second phase for the Kyoto protocol, which officially expires at the end of next year, is a primary goal for negotiators gathered in Durban over the next two weeks -- although significant stumbling blocks make that outcome uncertain.
The United States -- and increasingly, Canada -- are among rich nations that have argued that developing countries like China must formally agree to emissions reductions of their own before a truly global and binding climate treaty can be reached. Short of that, they argue, industrialized economies are unduly hobbled, while powerhouses of the developing world, which are expected to account for an increasing share of global emissions, are able to grow and pollute with abandon.
Developing nations counter that the U.S., Europe and other developed countries became rich through profligate use of inexpensive and CO2-intensive energy sources like oil, coal and natural gas, and that they are to blame for the current build-up of greenhouse gases now warming the planet. They also suggest that it is unfair to ask poor nations to avoid use of inexpensive fossil fuels at precisely the time when they are poised to repeat the economic growth enjoyed by the rich world over the last century.
A $100 billion Green Climate Fund, first posited at the failed climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, is designed to provide financial assistance to developing nations in their efforts to combat climate change, and establishing an architecture and funding for the trust is among the many goals of the Durban talks. But signs emerged even before negotiations got underway that progress on that front might also prove difficult.
Global greenhouse emissions, meanwhile, continue to rise, and even some participants in the first phase of Kyoto are expected to fall short of their goals under the agreement. This includes Canada, which had pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent compared to 1990 levels. Canada's most recent inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, submitted to the United Nations earlier this year, showed that while the country had been making year-over-year reductions since 2008, its emissions are still nearly 20 percent higher than they were in 1990.
Critics in large part blame increased development of the tar sands, a vast and contentious deposit of sand, clay and oil in northern Alberta. The Canadian government has expressed strong support for stepped-up exploitation of the tar sands, which they view as an economic boon. But opponents have argued that the carbon footprint associated with such an expansion would permanently cripple global efforts to get global warming under control.
"What's astonishing is watching Canada emerge as a rogue among developed countries," said Bill McKibben, the author and activist who has spearheaded a grassroots movement aimed at combatting a pipeline proposal designed to deliver some 700,000 barrels of oil each day from the tar sands to refineries and ports on the Texas Gulf Coast. "Of course, they have no choice but to ditch serious climate policy if they want to develop the tar sands in a big way -- and that pool of gunky oil is clearly the tail wagging the dog up there."