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Reality Check

Goodbye Kyoto? By Robert Sheppard, CBC.ca Reality Check Team | January 18, 2006 | More Reality Check

One of the few truly stark platform differences between Stephen Harper's Conservatives and virtually all the other parties this election is environmental policy and the Kyoto accord in particular. The Conservatives are the only mainstream party not to highlight any environmental policies on their campaign website (though a handful do appear in the formal platform); and they are the only ones not to back the formal Kyoto plan to cut greenhouse gases. The Liberals, the NDP, the Bloc and, of course, the Green Party are all ardent supporters of Kyoto, the ambitious-and to some controversial--1997 international agreement to try to curb man-made, climate-warming pollution.

But the Conservative position-to replace Kyoto with a voluntary "made in Canada" plan-is not at all clear, perhaps even to the party itself. It does, however, seem to have considerable spin-off implications for Canadian industries already going along with the notion of a Kyoto-inspired carbon-limiting world; for Canada's leadership role in the UN; and even for the Conservative's broad budget plans.

What Harper said

Significantly, what he did not say is that Canada will seek formally to withdraw from the Kyoto treaty by giving the UN the required three months notice. To do that might well scupper the Kyoto protocol entirely as it came into being under UN rules by the skin of its teeth. With big developing nations such as China and India exempted in this early stage from binding reduction targets (though they have both actually ratified the deal), and Republican Washington choosing to stay on the sidelines, Canada's signature was instrumental in moving the project forward. Kyoto, now a protocol, not merely a convention, formally became international law at the recent UN conference in Montreal in November when 173 countries ratified it.

What Harper said is that a Conservative government would reject the mandatory timetables and targets set out in Kyoto. Presumably he meant its main one: that Canada would reduce greenhouse gases to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. It's a target the Conservatives have mocked mercilessly on the campaign trail now that Canada's annual emissions are 24 per cent higher than what they were in 1990. Harper's promise is to create new, non-binding pollution targets in cooperation with the provinces and industry.

The practical implications

To create a voluntary system, the Conservatives told the Sierra Club they would remove greenhouse gases from the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which means these emissions will no longer be federally regulated. Without such internationally recognized regulation, it will be extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, for Canadian firms to buy and sell so-called carbon credits in an emerging international market. That is a key Kyoto incentive to encourage industries to reduce their own emissions and so benefit financially by being able to sell their surplus needs.

Broadly speaking, Harper's seems to mirror that of George W. Bush, who early in his presidency reversed the Bill Clinton decision to participate in the Kyoto accord. Although in Canada's case we have actually signed the deal. Harper is also hinting he wants to involve Canada in Bush-like side deals with other trading partners-the so-called bilateral approach-to link common pollution control objectives with preferred trading status. The Conservative leader has had some partisan fun noting that U.S. emissions have risen by only about half that of Canada's in recent years.

That approach, however, ignores Canada's usual leadership role in the UN; also the fact that much of the rise in our greenhouse gas emissions over the past 15 years is because we have been extracting increasing amounts of oil and natural gas for export to the U.S., a process that is hugely energy intensive. UN leadership

Complicating the Tory plan to step away from our Kyoto commitments is the fact that Canada is to head the UN Climate Secretariat for the next period, during which the signatories to Kyoto are to decide on targets for the second round, post-2012. This is a job Liberal minister Stephane Dion openly sought to cement Canada's position as the good-guy wealthy nation willing to bite the same tough bullet on curbing energy growth that it was asking the less developed world to go along with.

If Harper's Conservatives form the next government, having a Kyoto skeptic in charge of the UN Climate Secretariat might not sit well with pro-Kyoto Europe or the many developing nations that have backed Canada's leadership bid. It's probably also not going to help Canada negotiate more modest post-2012 targets, which has been a Liberal objective, insiders say.

Missing your Kyoto targets in this first round does not impose a financial penalty on nations. But it is supposed to add to your obligations in the second round. Insiders said Canada, which produces about two per cent of the world's greenhouse gases, took on such big obligations in the first round because the Clinton administration was looking to do the same and we were trying to help clinch U.S. involvement. But if that was the plan it certainly backfired as an election strategy when the Tories ridiculed the Martin government's missed goals.

A Conservative government that doesn't recognize Kyoto targets today will probably have much more difficulty getting a break down the road. Unless of course they do an about-face and can use this initial reluctance as a bargaining tool at the UN.

Budget cuts

Another complicating factor is that the Tories plan to raid Ottawa's Kyoto climate fund to pay for their plan to subsidize urban transit users. Environmentalists applaud the subsidy but note it will have limited affect on reducing carbon emissions. It will cost the treasury an estimated $2 billion over five years and the climate fund has only $1 billion set. This means a Harper government will have to find significant cuts elsewhere to pay for the transit subsidy. It also means that climate fund money, intended largely to reward Canadian companies for pollution efficiencies, won't be available.

As Kermit the frog used to say, it's not easy being green.

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