Canada Backsliding on Kyoto Pledges

IT'S A TRUE believer's kind of tale. The day after Canada officially ratified the Kyoto Protocol on CLIMATE CHANGE in December 2002, David Anderson was in New York City to deposit the freshly signed paper with the Treaty Section of the United Nations.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 28, 2005

IT'S A TRUE believer's kind of tale. The day after Canada officially ratified the Kyoto Protocol on CLIMATE CHANGE in December 2002, David Anderson was in New York City to deposit the freshly signed paper with the Treaty Section of the United Nations.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 28, 2005

Canada Backsliding on Kyoto Pledges

IT'S A TRUE believer's kind of tale. The day after Canada officially ratified the Kyoto Protocol on CLIMATE CHANGE in December 2002, David Anderson was in New York City to deposit the freshly signed paper with the Treaty Section of the United Nations. It was his shining moment as federal environment minister: an avowed multilateralist and an unabashed tree hugger, Anderson had spent three years battling opponents - and sometimes cabinet colleagues - over a deal he firmly held to be a turning point in the war against GLOBAL WARMING.

Now, after waiting for his boss, Jean CHRÉTIEN, to publicly commit to the accord, Anderson was realizing a dream. That evening, with Chrétien's autograph barely dry on the parchment, the veteran cabinet minister tucked the document under his pillow for safekeeping, and literally slept on the object of his triumph. "I was damned if someone was going to break into my room in the middle of the night and steal my precious deal," he says. "Even when we went out to a restaurant for dinner, I put it in the middle of the table so we could all keep an eye on it."

Sentimentality? Definitely. Paranoia? Perhaps. Whatever it was about the Kyoto accord that stirred such emotions two years ago seems like a distant memory, to the point where neither proponents nor critics of the deal give it much chance of making a difference in Canada. This week, the Martin government will take its first tentative steps toward implementing the deal with a budget laden with efficiency incentives, plus a partnership fund designed to get the provinces moving in their own jurisdictions. But it will do so against a backdrop of disappointment and failure: since the conception of the protocol in 1990, greenhouse gas emissions in Canada have climbed some 20 per cent (as of 2002), and all signs suggest those numbers have increased since Anderson's giddy time in New York two years ago. "I don't see any hope of our getting to our targets," says David Schindler, a biologist at the University of Alberta who has long agitated for action on climate change. "I can remember attending meetings on this very problem in the 1970s. To be sitting here over 30 years later and have nothing in the way of policies in place is pretty disgusting."

So why, after all the sound and fury, have we backslid so far? Opinions vary, and - let's be frank - Kyoto is nothing if not a political football. But most critics agree on the basic errors that have led us to our current dilemma, where reaching our stated goal of cutting emissions six per cent below 1990 levels by 2010 - a reduction of at least 240 megatonnes per year - would require a brand of resolve we simply don't have. For starters, we've overestimated the benefits of voluntary measures and incentives, thinking goodwill and a bit of financial assistance would propel Canadians to re-insulate their homes or trade in their sport utility vehicles. Second, we've banked on "carbon sink" credits (for improvements in forestry and agriculture that would lessen CO2 levels), but because of factors such as forest fires and beetle infestations we might not get the benefits we hoped for.

Our most grave, and perhaps most foreseeable, mistake was fooling ourselves into thinking we could do our part under Kyoto without inflicting pain on so-called large final emitters. These are the energy intensive utilities, oil and gas companies and manufacturers that heat our homes, supply us with cheap electricity, provide decent incomes to tens of thousands of Canadians - and are responsible for about half of the county's greenhouse gas emissions. Under Ottawa's 2002 proposal, these firms will pay no more than $15 per tonne for emissions permits for exceeding their government-set targets, with Ottawa likely paying the balance if the price goes higher. The oil and gas sector, meanwhile, got an extra perk: cuts of no more than 15 per cent below 2010 projected emissions levels.

The deal was regarded at the time as a political necessity: oil interests, along with the Alberta government, were mounting a formidable lobby against Chrétien's plans to ratify Kyoto. But government insiders now see it as an enormous impediment to implementing the accord, because the oil and gas industry produces an estimated 20 per cent of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions - a number that is expected to increase. "We think that was a mistake," said one federal official, who requested anonymity. "But there's not much we can do."

None of this would seem so painful if we didn't appear destined to repeat many of the very same blunders. Last month, reports surfaced that large final emitters are close to a deal with Natural Resources Canada that would see their targets significantly lessened. Originally, they were to reduce greenhouse gases by 55 megatonnes below their projected 2010 emissions levels, now estimated to be some 390 megatonnes. That reduction target may now be decreased by 10 megatonnes.

To Matthew Bramley, a climate change specialist with the pro-Kyoto Pembina Institute, it all points to either failure on Canada's part to reach its Kyoto goals, or an enormous hit for federal taxpayers as the government buys up international emission credits to meet its obligation. "You can't have a credible plan that asks so little of those responsible for 50 per cent of Canada's emissions," he says from his Ottawa-area office. "If it's not industry that's securing these reductions, it falls to the taxpayer to purchase them." Federal documents leaked earlier this month to the media suggest the Prime Minister's Office has been toying with the idea of buying international credits, possibly from Russia. The price: a cool $1.4 billion over five years, and even then we'll have done practically nothing to curb our own emissions. And wasn't that what the whole thing was supposed to be about in the first place?

IT ALL HAS the feel of a rather elaborate shell game, where the burden of reduction constantly shifts, and the federal taxpayer loses his hard-earned loonie. It's tempting to write off the whole mess as federal bumbling and move on. It was Ottawa, after all, that adopted the accord back in 1997, then ratified it five years later while the world's top emitter of greenhouse gases, the U.S., opted out. Shouldn't the government have foreseen the obvious roadblocks? Shouldn't Ottawa have known the price of bringing industry onside was too high, and that it had to either legislate the requirements outright or scrub the concept altogether?

Yes, assuredly, to all of the above. Of course, that assumes government operates free of the oldest forces in Canadian politics - regional agitation; personal rivalry; old-time pork-barrelling. It also ignores the increasing sway of paid lobbyists on Parliament Hill. If history is any indicator, the Martin government is facing those same pressures as it scrambles to assemble its own implementation plan. For months after Chrétien committed Canada to the accord, Anderson says he found himself jawboning with ministers who had plainly been influenced by the big-money interests affected by their departments. "They'd say, 'Yeah, I realize the prime minister and cabinet have made a decision on this, but I represent X, Y or Z and you're really going to have to persuade my people.' I'd say, 'Come on now, it's the other way around. We've made the decision, they have to put it into effect. I don't have to persuade anyone.' "

That's not, Anderson now acknowledges, how it worked in practice. When Paul MARTIN named his cabinet after the election last June, the green-friendly MP from Victoria was conspicuously absent, and Kyoto seemed to fall off the agenda. Anderson hasn't exactly been hiding his bitterness: firing him from cabinet, he says, sent a signal to emitters that the Martin government was less serious about implementing Kyoto. In the meantime, various departments - Natural Resources, Industry, Agriculture and Transport - had "allowed themselves to be captured by special interests," he says. "You felt you had one horse in the traces facing north and another horse facing south. This was not a team."

Which is dire news if Ottawa has any hope of resurrecting the protocol - something senior ministers claimed was in the cards in the lead-up to this week's budget. As Kyoto officially took force as international law last week, sources said the PMO had taken sudden interest in the issue, deciding once and for all that Kyoto was something worth staking the country's national reputation on. Martin reportedly called in a team of expert advisers to guide the process, while Stéphane Dion, the current environment minister, has spent the past few months trying to negotiate a voluntary emissions reduction package with the auto sector.

The government had hoped to have a full implementation plan on the table by last week - including tax measures, draft legislation or so-called "regulatory backstops" that would force heavy emitters to meet their targets. "Some targets will be mandatory," Dion told Maclean's in an interview, "as will be the case with the large final emitters, the 700 facilities that are sending up half of our greenhouse gas emissions." But last-hour negotiating has delayed the package, and officials with Environment Canada now say key elements won't be ready for several more weeks.

The delays have fuelled cynicism among observers, who know the telltale signs of political puck-ragging too well. "Big lead-up, promises of grand new initiatives and leaks of all sorts of recycled ideas," says Ross McKitrick, an environmental economist at the University of Guelph, who's been following the Kyoto process for years. "Yet the announcement of the plan has been delayed again until after the budget. And by all indications, it's going to contain some of the same old things in fancy, new clothing: some subsidies for energy efficiency and a promise to negotiate targets for the industries affected."

Whatever it contains, the feds would be well-advised to get it on a fast track. Last week, Martin announced that Montreal will host the next international conference on climate change, where the 134 countries that have agreed to Kyoto will meet to discuss their progress. After years of inaction, the PM badly needs some tangible gains to report at this meeting next December - if not for those who would judge us from abroad, then at least for Canadians who once took pride in our decision to join the Kyoto process. One would hate, after all, to think David Anderson kept that piece of stationery under his pillow for nothing.


THE GREEN STATES: Washington may be slow, but others are picking up the slack

GEORGE W. BUSH'S pro-business agenda is enough to make a grown environmentalist cry. According to the New York City-based Natural Resources Defense Council, the Bush administration took nearly 150 measures in 2004 alone that undermine legislation protecting air, water, wildlife, forests, parks and public health. Still, it's his refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol that provokes outrage in many places around the globe. The 1997 international accord, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming, came into effect last week. But without the world's largest emitter of heat-trapping pollutants among the signatories to the pact, many are questioning just how effective it can be.

Bush at least accepts the scientific consensus on global warming. His objection to Kyoto, he says, is what it would cost the U.S. economy. He instead prefers voluntary targets and developing new energy technologies to reduce the nation's reliance on burning fossil fuels. But some states are stepping into the legislative void - and their initiatives could prove significant. After all, many of Washington's strongest environmental regulations had their origins at the state level. This time around, states are pushing a number of measures, from encouraging consumers to opt for energy from renewable sources, to setting industry caps to reduce emissions.

Many eyes are on California where a major battle with the auto industry is shaping up. Last September, after two years of deliberations, the state adopted landmark legislation requiring car manufacturers to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases by about 30 per cent by 2016. But five major automakers have joined in a legal action, claiming California lacks the authority to enact such legislation. Annie Petsonk, international counsel with Environmental Defense in Washington, says the suit makes little sense, especially as several of the manufacturers that have already invested in more fuel-efficient technologies would actually increase their profits if the California standards were adopted. She adds, "What's crazy is that the public wants cleaner cars, the car companies advertise cleaner cars, yet they're going to court." The eight states already poised to adopt the California standard will no doubt follow the case closely.

Some states have had more success regulating power generation. To date, 18, along with the District of Columbia, require utilities to gradually increase the amount of electricity they supply from renewable resources such as solar, wind and bioenergy. This is projected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 64.3 megatonnes by 2017, the equivalent of taking 9.6 million cars off the road. Ironically, Bush's home state is considered a clean-power success story. Already well ahead of its 2005 interim target, Texas appears capable of generating the required 2,000 megawatts from renewable resources by 2009. Observers attribute this not only to the Lone Star state's abundant renewable energy resources, but to a number of key provisions in the legislation then-governor Bush signed into law in 1999. Among them: significant financial penalties to electricity providers that fail to meet targets. So much for voluntary.

Maclean's February 28, 2005