Why the Harper government’s decision on Kyoto is both correct and not surprising

With the start of the Durban climate change negotiations, it was suddenly news that Canada would not confirm or deny it’s intentions to abandon the Kyoto Protocol – this may have been news to some, but I can’t understand why it would be news to anyone who has been following GHG policy in this country.

If you go back to 2008, during Prime Minister Harper’s first mandate, the Turning the Corner Climate Change Plan made it very clear that his government was resigned to not meeting the Kyoto targets (the word Kyoto is mentioned once in the Plan). At that time, Canada’s stated target was, “an absolute 20% reduction in greenhouse gases from 2006 levels by the year 2020,” and even meeting that target was clearly going to require some heavy lifting.  For example, the 2008 Plan stated that, “(oilsands) plants starting operations in 2012 will be required to meet the toughest targets of all which will effectively require putting into place new carbon capture and storage technologies to prevent the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.” Yes, the Harper government.

The Harper government’s plan for getting to 20% below 2005 by 2020 would have left Canada at an average emissions of about 750Mt/yr, almost 200Mt/yr above our Kyoto Protocol target of 563 Mt/yr, on average between 2008 and 2012.

Even before Turning the Corner, in the summer of 2007 in their initial filing under the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, the Government’s position with respect to achieving Kyoto targets was made abundantly clear:

“…when cast against a time frame that requires Canada to begin reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by one-third beginning in January 2008, it is evident that domestic action would have to be buttressed by some international purchase of emission credits. Even allowing for such purchases, the government would need to take further drastic action that would overwhelm the environmental and other benefits of action on climate change that Canadians are seeking. These measures would require placing the equivalent of a tax on energy, impacting both large industrial emitters of greenhouse gases and individual consumers. The Government has examined this scenario and rejected it as a viable policy option.”

The Harper Government, from it’s first minority, has been very clear that it had no intention of imposing the types of policies which would have resulted in compliance with the Kyoto Protocol.  In my view, the basis for this decision was correct – the implementation of policies to meet our Kyoto targets, at such a late stage, would have required the most stringent GHG policy in the world by far, and the costs would have far outweighed the benefits.  (That’s not to say that the current suite of policies is the right approach, by the way.) In my view, the Harper government’s abandonment of Kyoto is still the right move today, but not surprising in the least.

This leads to the second, and perhaps more important, issue of whether or not Canada will or should withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol (I had assumed this was synonymous with not agreeing to a second commitment period target, but it’s not. See here.). The structure of the Kyoto Protocol, in particular the calculation of responsibilities with respect to a baseline year will always be problematic for Canada, and if you’re going to have a baseline year, 1990 is a particularly bad one. Since the original Kyoto Protocol did not build-in explicit penalties for non-compliance, the likely outcome of participation in a second commitment period would simply see Canada with a weakened bargaining position. This would likely result in another un-attainable target, and I hope we’ve learned our lesson with regard to those.

Emissions growth, if you simplify down to the Kaya identity, is always going to be determined by population growth, growth in GDP per capita, changes in the energy-intensity of GDP, and changes in the emissions-intensity of energy. Canada has a growing population, with significant economic growth, and much of that growth is being driven by high-value but also high-emissions and high-energy production (not just oilsands).  Reductions relative to a baseline year will be achieved with less effort by countries with little or no population growth and with significant opportunities to, at low cost, reduce the emissions intensity of economic activity – in other words, not Canada.  For Canada to, for a third time, commit to a target which would require more aggressive action, but appear weak based on the baseline measurement, should not be in the cards.

So, while Canada is right to abandon Kyoto, and Canada is right that an effective treaty to address global carbon emissions needs to include most/all countries, I don’t think they’re on the right track in demanding an agreement with binding targets for all countries.  First, it’s unlikely you’ll see binding emissions targets imposed on developing countries. That makes it less likely that Canada will have a role in formulating whatever agreement does come around if they’ve disavowed interest based on that condition..  Second, an agreement with binding emissions targets for everyone is, in my view, the last thing Canada should be pushing for.  Canada should, and I will write more on this later, be pushing for an international standard by which a facility operated in the UK, in Alberta, or in India would face the same effective carbon price, or the same reward for reducing emissions. That doesn’t mean carbon tax – it means a system which measures effort, and doesn’t reward historic emissions.

I cannot see any sign that a legitimate second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol will materialize, and if people succeed in pushing one through, it is unlikely to have any meaningful impact and perhaps do more harm than good. Canada should not be a part of it either way. As stated in an editorial in Nature leading up to Durban, “there is no need to kill (the Kyoto Protocol). The treaty is already weakened and will prove hard to revive. The Durban meeting should be where the Kyoto Protocol, as we know it, goes to die.”  If it does, something will fill the void.  Canada’s role should be making sure that the next agreement does not put Canada at the same disadvantages that Kyoto did, while putting us closer to meeting global GHG reduction goals.  If we can get on that road in Durban, I’ll call it a success. More on this later.

7 responses to “Why the Harper government’s decision on Kyoto is both correct and not surprising”

  1. Clarification on compliance and withdrawal

    […] on compliance and withdrawalBy Andrew on November 29, 2011 In yesterday’s post I had equated withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol with not agreeing to targets under a second […]

  2. Milan Ilnyckyj

    Your analysis totally ignores the key ethical issues here.

    First, we now know that greenhouse gas pollution is threatening the future habitability of the planet. It is enormously unethical for us to continue burning fossil fuels with no restraint, given that we know that. Cheap energy might be pleasant for those alive today, but if we continue on our present course we may be flirting with CO2 concentrations around 1000ppm by the end of the century, with the prospect of radical climatic change unfolding over centuries and enduring for millennia. An enormous number of people in the future – both in Canada and around the world – are going to need to live with the consequences of our choices. We should not choose to be utterly selfish, just because doing so is profitable in the short term.

    Secondly, Canada’s emissions per person are excessively, exceptionally high. A just solution to the climate problem must take into account which nations caused the problem (those that developed on the basis of high-carbon fuels) and which nations have the financial means now to be part of the solution. By rights, Canada should be leading the pack. In reality, we have one of the most irresponsible climate change policies of any government in the world.

    At one point or another, the world is finally going to wake up to the fact that climate change is exceptionally dangerous and greenhouse gas pollution must be cut substantially. When that day comes, it will be necessary to scrap the incredibly carbon-intensive infrastructure Canada is building now, including oil sands facilities and pipelines.

    Continuing to do nothing is triply expensive for Canada. We are building facilities that will need to be shut down before the end of their useful lives. We are missing opportunities for low-cost emissions reductions, by failing to put an economy-wide carbon price in place. And we are setting ourselves up to have to build a real low-carbon infrastructure in a huge hurry a couple of decades down the line, which will substantially increase costs.

  3. Milan

    On BuryCoal, I have written a quick post on why people are wrong when they argue that the problems with the Kyoto Protocol mean that Canada should not participate meaningfully and in good faith in ongoing international climate negotiations. The failure of Kyoto to curb the rise in global emissions strengthens rather than diminishes the case for coordinated international action.

  4. Canada’s climate challenge: 1 out of 3 ain’t good enough.

    […] that it would not be signing on to a new commitment period for the Kyoto protocol, and you can count me among those who expect an announcement later this month that Canada is withdrawing from the… in general.    The question which remains is, “what […]

  5. Globe Article and Reader Comments

    […] Article and Reader CommentsBy Andrew on December 10, 2011 Last week, I summarized my two (#1 and #2) on Kyoto compliance and withdrawal into a shorter piece on the Globe and Mail’s […]

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