Reposted from Global Times, December 25, 2011

Editor’s Note:

Canada’s withdrawal from the Koyto Protocol has shocked the world and cast a shadow on global efforts at combating climate change. What does the Canadians think of this decision and the protocol? Why did Canada’s emissions schemes fail? Global Times (GT) reporter Gao Lei invited Deborah Harford (Harford), executive director of the Adaptation to Climate Change Team (ACT) at Simon Fraser University, to talk about these issues.

GT: Instead of honoring its commitment by cutting emission level to an average 6% below 1990 level, the country’s carbon emission actually went to the opposite direction. What specifically has gone wrong?

It requires a lengthy transition to move from an economy that is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, such as Canada’s, to one that has a significantly lower carbon footprint. Canada, like the rest of the world, faced two economic recessions in 2000-2002 and 2008-2009, which caused voters to lower climate change as a priority in favor of economic buoyancy. The costs of making the transition required by the Protocol were seen as too great for the average Canadian, and therefore for the government to support, in a democratic political system that was undergoing significant change on an ongoing basis.

Many Canadians were also concerned about the exclusion of developing countries from the Protocol and were hesitant to support it. Canada faced four elections in the first decade of the century featuring a succession of minority governments, so there was no strong leadership to make the transition. Voters were also confused and misled by various effective efforts on the part of climate change deniers to derail progress.

We also face a situation in which development of the emissions-heavy oilsands represents a major economic opportunity in a time in which the country is trying to recover from recession; our current leadership supports this development, although it is the subject of much controversy and concern both within Canada and internationally.

As one response to this, the federal government banked on carbon sequestration for the coal and oil industries as a significant way to reduce emissions, but despite expensive pilot projects in the Prairies, to date none of these projects has been successful and the technology remains unproven.

Overall, we have not seen dynamic leadership at the federal level designed to reduce emissions, and support at this level for climate science and expertise has also rapidly diminished in the last two years, to the major concern of the climate science community, which was previously highly regarded internationally.

GT: The government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended its withdrawal, saying that the one-size-fits-all Protocol was a mistake by former Prime Minister Jean Chretien and paying the $14 billion fine would be unfair. Some Canadian media outlets also ran stories accusing the Protocol of costing jobs and severely damaging the country’s economy. What’s your opinion on this?

Harford: As mentioned above, Canada’s economy is heavily dependent on natural resources and there is a significant transition to be made, which will likely only become economically attractive if carbon becomes subject to international taxation and regulation that reduces the attractiveness of the resource as a source of profit.

It is quite possible for Canada to transition to a green economy that has a lower carbon footprint and sustains jobs. However, the main sources of carbon are from the transportation sector, heating houses and commercial establishments and from heavy industry.

The car industry, an essential economic sector for eastern Canada where most of Canada’s heavy industry is located, is dependent on the North American market, and with no shift by US auto manufacturers, due to a similar indecisiveness on the part of US federal authorities regarding emissions regulations/carbon taxation, to lower emission vehicles, it has been difficult economically for Canada to go it alone.

Canada and the provinces did introduce incentives for certain regions to become energy efficient, but generally these have been too limited to make a major difference. British Columbia and a number of provinces and US states have planned a cap and trade system for carbon, but to date it has not been implemented.

It is true that it would be expensive for Canada’s industries to meet the Protocol’s demands in the current situation, but with strategic investment, incentives and policy reform, progress on emissions reduction will be possible, and must be achieved. However, the US will inevitable have a big influence depending on how they decide to proceed, given that they are Canada’s biggest trade partner and represent 80 percent of our export market.

GT: Environment Minister Peter Kent claimed that the country can cut its emission better without the Protocol, singling out a self-imposed emission target submitted in Copenhagen in 2009. But considering the fact that the country has failed to lower its emission over the past 14 years, can it fulfill this new target by 2020?

Harford: Individual provinces and major cities are in fact making a lot of progress. For instance, British Columbia has introduced a law and a related tax to reduce carbon by 33 percent from 2007 to 2020, and its biggest city, Vancouver, has vowed to become the greenest city in the world by 2020 and is actively encouraging public transit, cycling and renewable energy from district heating systems.

Ontario has developed a major green energy industry with feed in tariffs to encourage conversion to renewable energy. Quebec also has set a stringent target for carbon cuts by 2020. Canada’s size, and the discrepancies between its provinces and territories in terms of demographics and industry, have to date posed problems for unified approaches, for instance on carbon pricing.
However, according to a new report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), the federal government will need to work with the provinces to introduce new measures including carbon pricing, cap and trade, and domestic offset programs, and to regulate the emissions of sectors it may not have expected to initially, such as the transportation sector.

The report also says that, when coupled with what the provinces are doing, Canada is about halfway to its international target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to 17 percent below 2005 levels, and that it will be able to meet its 2020 targets if it implements measures such as those mentioned above.

GT: Green Party leader Elizabeth May have accused the government of breaking the law for its withdrawal from the Protocol, as the deal was ratified by the House of Commons in 2007, and urged the decision be discussed in the House. But will the decision survive the House?

Harford: It is doubtful that the Canadian Parliament would vote to overturn the decision of the government to drop out of the Kyoto Accord – the Conservative government has a majority in the House of Parliament and would use it to defeat a motion led by the Green Party, which only has one seat.

GT: Australia has already voicing its support to Canada’s decision. It appears that both countries share a similar idea that their carbon emissions are very small compared to big polluters like China, so that it is unfair to demand so much from them while China is “left alone.” However, China, still a developing country, has been arguing that this mindset is an excuse for “rich countries” to avoid their responsibilities. What’s your view on this? Do you think the Protocol should be modified to make it fairer for small emitters regardless “rich” or “poor?”

Harford: The global approach to reducing carbon emissions is a classic case of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons.’ No single jurisdiction is responsible for controlling carbon emissions, so no one takes responsibility, and as a result the world continues to pollute. Ultimately, all of humanity, through their leaders, will have to co-operate as one overall unit if we are to reduce emissions and head off a catastrophe.

The Kyoto Accord was an initial attempt by the developed counties to take that leadership on the moral basis that that group had caused carbon to increase dramatically over the past century and it was appropriate that they take the lead. Unfortunately, that leadership was found wanting.

However, it is now not sufficient for the developing countries to continue to hold back on carbon reduction, because we are getting close to the tipping point beyond which emissions concentration in the atmosphere will render the planet unlivable for the human species. It is vital that all countries work as one global community to agree to a legally binding accord that will reduce carbon significantly by 2030 and by more than 50 percent by 2050. Carbon is the great equaliser. A unit of carbon emitted from Beijing has the same global impact as a unit of carbon emitted from Toronto.

Humanity holds in its hands the seeds of both its own destruction, if it does not act in concert soon, and the ability to cooperate as one single human race and set a new course for lower carbon and restoration of its natural ecosystems. It is now too late to point fingers. It is time for statesmanship and leadership, cooperation and shared vision, of how we can help each other solve this challenge.

Between 1990 and 2009 China increased its carbon footprint by over 200 percent compared with Canada at 20 percent and the US about 8 percent. We are all in this together and can find a solution only through cooperation, and not though nationalistic positions over rich and poor, developing and underdeveloped. The Durban Accord agreed in principle to a fund of up to $100 billion a year by 2020 to assist poorer countries and developing countries to both reduce emissions, and just as importantly, to adapt to a changing climate.

It will be key now to focus on climate adaptation as well as carbon mitigation. It will take much more than 100 years for all the carbon that will be emitted over the next 50 years to work its way through the atmospheric system, and the impacts of the carbon emitted since the onset of the Industrial Revolution has already guaranteed warming well into the 2030s – the impacts are already being felt across the globe and will become increasingly severe. We must therefore develop a global approach to adaptation, regardless of how well the global governance structure deals with carbon reduction, due to the slow progress being made.