Farewell Kyoto Protocol, you did your job

It would be easy to view the greenhouse gas-constraining Kyoto Protocol as a failure, particularly after its demise in all but name in Durban on the weekend. But the West did hit its reduction targets, save for a few laggards like Canada.
How much longer can the planet wait?

It would be easy to look at the greenhouse gas-constraining Kyoto Protocol as a failure, particularly after all the desultory wrangling that oversaw its demise in all but name in Durban on the weekend.

But that might be to see Kyoto through too much of a Canadian-orchestrated prism.

In 1997, the industrialized world — save for Bill Clinton's America — promised to roll back climate-changing, GHG emissions to pre-1990 levels by 2012, and these countries have pretty much met that goal.

Indeed, according to detailed study in September by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, the 37 main Kyoto nations plus the U.S. (which has still never ratified the treaty) have emitted 7.5 per cent less CO2 into the atmosphere in 2010 than in 1990.

What's more, as a group, they are poised to meet the collective Kyoto target of 5.2 per cent less than 1990 by 2012, when the agreement was to kick over to a more stringent second stage, which is what the Durban conference was supposed to be about.

Today that second stage is something of a mirage. Kyoto now looks like it will live on essentially as a reporting mechanism to keep the statistics flowing and the 195 or so countries under the UN umbrella still talking. The goal now is to try to come up with some sort of replacement "framework" that may or may not bind all GHG-emitting countries to the same degree by somewhere around 2020.

Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent at the Durban climate change conference: We want to avoid another Kyoto-like pact at all costs. Kyoto was not effective and was not good for Canada. The previous government should not have ratified it.

A handful of Kyoto signatories — Japan, Russia and, notably, Canada — stated pretty explicitly at Durban that they won't be bound by any second-stage Kyoto commitments. (Not that the pre-2012 version carried any real penalties for non-compliance). And they are already setting their markers down for whatever will come next.

Essentially what Durban did was change the discussion from talking about specific commitments to talking about timetables and, probably, categories of polluters.

In other words, back to the early-stage Kyoto discussions of about 15 years ago, but with at least much of the heavy lifting out of the way.

For its part, it can be said that Kyoto raised public awareness about climate change, which in turn helped those countries that made specific commitments meet their targets, with some notable exceptions: Australia, Spain and Canada, which saw a 20 per cent increase in overall CO2 emissions between 1990 and 2010.

Still, over that same 20-year period, global emissions rose 45 per cent, largely as a result of the phenomenally rapid industrializing of China, India, Brazil and others in the developing world.

As it turns out, that is the exact same rate of increase — 45 per cent — that GHG emissions rose in the 20 years prior to 1990, albeit off a smaller base. As far as the planet is concerned, though, nothing much has changed but geography.

The problem with Canada

For environmentalists, particularly those that gathered in Durban, Canada's role in these talks was particularly galling. (Witness our five consecutive Fossil of the Year awards.)

Percentage change in CO2 emissions, 1990-2010

Europe -7%

Russia -28%

Japan n/c

U.S. +5%

Canada +20%

Australia +46%

India +180%

China +257%

Source: Netherlands/JRC study

We are seen as enjoying a fine standard of living, relatively little government debt, while endangering the planet with our environmentally costly commitment to becoming an energy superpower by way of the oil sands.

When the former Liberal government signed on to Kyoto, perhaps naively, in 1997, it was with an eye to getting the then ultra-consuming U.S. on board as well. But our commitment became caught up in domestic politics and we essentially bobbed and weaved to the point where it is now hard to know where we really stand on emissions control.

In the lead-up to the Copenhagen climate summit two years ago we pulled a new baseline target seemingly out of the hat, 2006, promising a 20 per cent reduction in emissions from that year by 2020.

At Durban these last weeks, Environment Minister Peter Kent was in the forefront of those hectoring China, making the case that Canada won't sign on to any new binding international agreement unless China does more to curb its emissions and agrees to a similarly binding goal itself.

It's a legitimate argument: China needs to step up. But how do you make it with a straight face when you haven't come anywhere close to meeting your own international obligations and you also want to turn around and sell China as much oil sands petroleum as it is willing to take.

The problem with China

The underlying rationale for Kyoto back in the day was that the West had enjoyed a 200-year head start on industrialization, with all its nasty side effects, and that the developing world needed time to catch up. Hence, China, India, Brazil and all the others were signatories to the Kyoto Protocol but were not obliged to meet any emission targets.

Xie Zhenhua, China's lead climate change negotiator, at the Durban meeting in South Africa. Binding targets, yes. The same as everyone else? Maybe not.

It is an argument that probably sits better these days with India than China, which has not only become the world's biggest factory but also one of its primo bankers, currently holding over $1 trillion in U.S. debt.

To its credit, China is fast becoming a leader in solar power and renewable energy, and some analysts have attributed its recent surge in GHG emissions to the rebuilding of Sichuan province after the devastating earthquake in 2008.

Still, the sheer magnitude of its industrialization, with its dependency on coal and other fossil fuels, has turned it into the world's top emitter, with a CO2 per capita that is scheduled to overtake the U.S., though not Canada, by 2017.

For environmentalists, Durban can be seen as a victory of sorts because China, India and the others are now talking for the first time about committing to binding emission targets, though by how much and when will take years to determine.

It is also a dubious victory for laggard Canada in that there will be a fresh start and no second-stage Kyoto Protocol with teeth to punish those who didn't meet their commitments the first time around.

As for the protocol itself, it should probably be seen as more than 30 lost years, from 1990 to 2020.

Kyoto's "triumph" was that it did show that collective action and incessant badgering can bring about at least some change on the world stage, and that international progress can be achieved without the U.S., or even Canada.

Robert Sheppard is a CBC producer who has been writing about environmental politics since the 1970s.