Environment Minister Peter Kent wouldn't confirm or deny Monday that Canada plans to formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, as talks on the accord's future got underway in Durban, South Africa.
"I won't comment on a speculative report," Kent said in response to questions about a report that Canada will announce it is pulling out shortly before Christmas.
But South Africa's high commissioner to Canada said in an interview with CBC News that there has been speculation for weeks about the Conservative government's planned withdrawal and about it wanting other countries to follow suit.
"It's disturbing and very disapppointing that a country like Canada would pull out after having given leadership in this particular UN convention which is so important for the world," Mohau Pheko said.
"It will, of course undermine the process going into Durban because obviously they have not only just planned their own withdrawal, which we are speculating upon, but they have actively lobbied other countries to do the same.
"I think that this is part of what is disturbing as well. That while you hold your own position then withdraw and allow others to continue with the process. So it's a very disappointing position I think that Canada has taken and as I said not only for the world but for Canadians themselves," she added.
Pheko said reports about Canada withdrawing don't come as a surprise, given the government's approach to negotiations leading up to the Durban conference.
She also said it makes sense for Canada to rally support around its position of withdrawing from the Kytoto protocol, if that is what is announced in the coming weeks.
"There is speculation that Canada has been lobbying other countries too, of course you don't want to move on your own and be seen as a 'pariah' of the world on climate change, so obviously you may need a few friends to move along with you," she said.
Kent was asked several times earlier in the day at a news conference in Ottawa, and opposition parties also pressed him in question period Monday afternoon, to confirm the report about pulling out of Kyoto but he did not give a definitive answer.
Kent was making an announcement in Ottawa about continued funding for the Conservative government's clean air agenda – $600 million over the next five years.
The environment minister said that in Durban he will try to convince the other parties that signed the protocol that a new international agreement is needed, one that includes the world's major polluters. He leaves for the two-week conference later this week.
"We're going to Durban to work in common cause with the other parties to the convention to advance a new climate change agreement, binding eventually, which will engage all emitters in both the developed and the developing countries," Kent said.
He called the international agreement "one of the biggest blunders" the Liberal government ever made and said his government is committed to a "realistic" plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
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"Kyoto is the past, Copenhagen and Cancun are the future," Kent said, referring to the commitments made at climate change talks in those cities in recent years.
Negotiators and political leaders from 190 countries, including Canada, are participating in the conference, and are seeking new ways to cut carbon dioxide emissions and pollution and also trying to resolve differences between rich and poor countries on how to fight climate change.
The UN climate secretariat Christiana Figueres said future commitments by industrial countries to slash greenhouse gas emissions is "the defining issue of this conference." She is hoping for a decision at the meetings on extending emission reduction commitments under the Kyoto accord. The protocol called on nations to reduce carbon emissions five per cent below 1990 levels by the end of next year and some of the commitments are due to expire next year.
Canada won't commit to Kyoto extension
Kent very clearly said that Canada "will not make a second commitment to Kyoto" but refused to answer whether Canada will pull out of it.
"I'm neither confirming nor denying," he said. "This isn't the day, this is not the time to make an announcement beyond the announcement on the clean air regulatory agenda."
Canada's withdrawal would be "a slap in the face," but would likely have little effect on the negotiations, said Alden Meyer of the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists. But Meyer said a withdrawal, which would only come into effect next year, would allow Canada to continue to be a negotiator on the future of the protocol "watering down the treaty and wrecking the job of the rest of us."
Kent said that if climate change is meaningfully going to be addressed, then major emitters of greenhouse gases can't sit on the sidelines, and all countries have to play their part.
The underlying division between developing and industrial nations on the future of the protocol has stymied negotiations on where to take it.
Poor countries want the industrial nations to commit to more cuts for a second period, saying the protocol is the only legal instrument ever adopted to control carbon and other gases that trap the Earth's heat. But the wealthy countries, with growing consensus, say they cannot carry the burden alone, and want rapidly developing countries like China, India, Brazil and South Africa to join their own legally binding regime to slow their emissions growth and move toward low-carbon economies.
As the conference opened Monday, divergent views were laid out by participating countries and the European Union, indicating this round of climate change talks will be particularly tough.
The EU was conditioning its acceptance of new commitments on an agreement in Durban from China, India and other major emitting countries that they will adopt legally binding commitments by 2015.
China signalled it wants an extension of the Kyoto commitments. The protocol was "the cornerstone of the climate regime, and its second commitment period is the essential priority for the success of the Durban conference," Chinese delegate Su Wei told the inaugural session.
American chief delegate Jonathan Pershing said the United States, which shunned Kyoto as unfair, would accept legally binding emissions limits in the future as long as all major emitters took on equal legal obligations. But the United States wants to know exactly what such an agreement would contain before it agreed to the principle of a legal treaty, and an agreement would require approval of the country's Senate.
South African's president, Jacob Zuma, opened the conference on Monday by urging nations to look beyond their own interests for solutions to climate change.
"For most people in the developing world and Africa, climate change is a matter of life and death," he told delegates. Global warming is causing suffering and conflict, including drought in Somalia and Sudan and flooding in his own country, Zuma said.
"Change and solutions are always possible. In these talks, state parties will need to look beyond their national interests to find a global solution for a common good and benefit of all humanity," Zuma said.
Canada 'making progress' on targets
Kent said Canada has made a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 607 megatonnes by 2020 and a sector by sector approach is being taken in alignment with the United States.
"We are making progress," he said. Kent said Canada has introduced stringent emission standards for some vehicles and that the new funding announced Monday will go towards monitoring and enforcing regulations, and will help identify new air quality issues and to evaluate solutions to emerging and existing issues.
Kent said the government is in the final stage of writing new regulations for the coal-fired electricity industry, the second-largest greenhouse gas emission sector, and have begun consultations with the oilsands, steel, cement, and gas industries.
"We are moving forward with a very clear and transparent process," said Kent.
He estimated that Canada is about a quarter of the way to meeting the 2020 target.
"We are pursuing, domestically, an honourable approach to meet our international commitments and we are engaging honourably with our partners around the world to come up with a new agreement that will as I said, include all of the major emitting countries, whether they be developed or developing," he said.
'Shameful' if Canada withdraws from Kyoto
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May described the Conservatives' actions as far from honourable on Monday when she responded to the report that Canada is planning to withdraw from Kyoto in late December, after MPs have left Ottawa for the Christmas break and when Canadians are less likely to pay attention to the news.
"It's shameful," she told CBC News. Parliament voted to ratify the agreement, and it wouldn't be right for Canada to turn its back on it with no debate, she said.
May requested an emergency debate on the issue on Monday afternoon and the request was rejected.
"I don't ever give up on such things, there are lots of good Conservative MPs who know this is wrong," she said.
May accused the government of going to Durban and negotiating in bad faith.
"Our government right now, today, in South Africa is trying to stop the rest of the world from coming to negotiated agreements that would reduce greenhouse gases and protect our children's future," the British Columbia MP said.
The opposition parties pressed the government in question period Monday afternoon to admit it plans to withdraw from Kyoto, but Kent and Industry Minister Christian Paradis didn't answer the questions from NDP and Liberal MPs.
The NDP's environment critic, Megan Leslie, said the Conservatives are making Canada a laughing stock internationally and that their clean air agenda has been a failure. She also said it's "shameful" for the Conservatives to go to Durban, and pull out of Kytoto weeks later, if that's what the government intends to do, and she also accused them of negotiating in bad faith.
"What's the point of him going to Durban if all he's going to do is actually try to undermine the negotiations that are happening in good faith," she said after question period. "I do not understand why he's going."
Liberal interim leader Bob Rae said Canada is not being upfront and honest with its international partners – that if the government plans to withdraw it should do it now so the matter can be debated at Durban and in Parliament.
"This government has been in denial on climate change for a very long time, they are now denying the importance of our international obligations," he said. "They have to understand that this makes Canada look like an international outlaw and I don't think Canada should be looking like an international outlaw on a question of that importance."