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Day 3 of the Durban Climate Talks: A Closer look at the Kyoto Protocol

The controversy over news reports that the Harper government plans to announce legal departure from the Kyoto Protocol on December 23rd continue to reverberate. A quick search of mainstream media finds that this topic is dominating coverage of the talks. While we clearly could not meet our emission reduction target under the Protocol given both Liberal and Harper government inaction, if this news is true – and Minister Kent is yet to openly deny it – Canada will be the first country to sign and ratify this international agreement and then walk away from it.

Now, the Kyoto Protocol has some serious problems as far as we’re concerned, and we don’t see eye to eye with the Harper government on this point. While our government focuses on the supposed misguided principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (or so-called ‘guilt payment‘ a point I’ll return to shortly) we see the major failings of Kyoto in the loopholes it allows to avoid climate action.

Our primary concern here is the use of carbon trading and carbon offsets which allow Global North countries to purchase credits generated primarily in the Global South under the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism to meet a good portion of their emission reduction requirements. While this is less of a concern with a country like ours that does not have a plan to reduce emissions, it is a concern in the EU where carbon offsets are widely used to the detriment of domestic action.

The major problems with carbon trading and carbon offsets is that a startling number of these projects in the Global South are not actually reducing emissions above and beyond what action would have been taken without these credits, and in some cases, these projects are actually causing harm. For more information on this, check out our false solutions fact sheet, if you want more details, I suggest How Carbon Trading Works and Why it Fails, or checking out Friends of the Earth Europe’s climate campaign.

The good aspects of Kyoto include legally binding emission reduction targets (yes, targets Canada has completely ignored, but there is still the moral weight of this and other diplomatic measures are possible), the focus of the current debate over whether countries will sign a second commitment period.

There is also the important principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. This was the focus of Canada’s Fossil of the Day award today. In essence, this principle is a rule we are all familiar with – whoever makes the mess should be responsible for the clean up. We know that Global North, or developed countries, thanks to industrialization and high levels of consumption, have generated the most amount of greenhouse gas emissions which are now contributing to a climate crisis. This principle under Kyoto means that Global North countries have a responsibility for pursuing greater emission reductions, and take action as soon as possible.

This doesn’t mean that developing countries or so-called emerging countries like China and India don’t take action, in fact there are mechanisms under Kyoto and the broader UN framework convention for precisely this. And the reality is that the countries that are being used by the Harper government as a reason for not signing a second commitment period (if you’ve been following the news, by now you will have heard the – we need all countries under one climate agreement line) are in fact out pacing countries like Canada and the U.S. on tackling climate change.  As I highlighted in my first Durban blog, recent analysis by the Stockholm Environment Institute finds that the emission reductions of China, India, South Africa and Brazil could be slightly greater than the combined efforts of the 7 biggest developed countries – the US, Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Russia by 2020.

The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities also responds to the cruel reality that those who have contributed least to the crisis we face, are being hit first and hardest by its impacts. According to the UN Environment Programme, a person living in a Global South country is 79 times more likely to experience a climate disaster compared to someone living in a Global North country.

What this whole scandal over Canada leaving Kyoto comes down to is a government committed to a vision for energy development in Canada based on increasing exports, be it in the tar sands (Canada’s fastest growing source of GHGs), natural gas (including fracked gas) and more. No matter how much this is sugar coated with splashy PR campaigns by our government and industry (I’m sure you’ve all seen CAPPs recent tv commercials and billboards – I have 2 in my neighbourhood), this path means Canada’s emissions will go up, not down. This is the context in which leaving Kyoto and Canada’s negotiating position in Durban becomes clearer. While Kyoto has little teeth, it does have some. Negotiating a new treaty that brings all players ‘on board’ means more delay and the opportunity to continue with the voluntary emission pledges under the plan proposed in Copenhagen and moved forward at the Cancun climate talks and negotiating for the expansion of false solutions like more carbon trading and offsets.
All the more reason for us, as Canadians, to continue to speak out against the Harper government on the issue of climate change (and much more), while working federally and provincially to achieve what goals we can, and mobilize in our communities across the country.