Environment Minister Rona Ambrose has spent the last few weeks defending the Conservative’s straight-forward clean-air strategy. And while many Kyoto Protocol diehards were scolding the strategy, the accord was unceremoniously put out to not-so green pastures.
Through all the rhetoric and flash-cash schemes since its tentative conception at the Kyoto Conference in 1997, critics were always fast to point out that Kyoto was just another international do-good initiative headed for the recycling bin. It was the accord that did come into force but was not enforced, and was supposed to reduce 55 per cent of global emissions by the year 2012.
Kyoto has done poorly in the past with elected politicians, both federal and provincial, either in or out of office. Many followed the thinking of Imperial Oil CEO Bob Peterson, who in 1998 shrugged the notion of global warming and called Kyoto “the dumbest-assed thing I’ve heard in a long time”.
As expected, The Canadian Gas Association said in 1999 the plan was a good starting point but in no way should consumers not use gas. “There is nothing inherently wrong with a regulatory approach, provided that the regulatory framework reflects energy and industrial realities,” said the association’s president Michael Cleland.
Conversely, in 2002 a coalition of 11 environmental groups said in a statement, “The amounts of mandatory reductions by industrial large final emitters are so limited that it places what is likely to be a large burden on the rest of the accord.”
They had reasons back then to be pessimistic.
Scientists were at odds over global warming. By 2002, the number of scientists who had signed a petition denying the effects of global warming rose from 17,000 in 1997 to 44,000.
The petition said, in part, “There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate.”
There were two reasons behind the anti-global warming movement. First, the most reliable temperature data showed no discernible global warming trend. Global warming supporters point to surface-based temperature measurements showing the last 15 years as the warmest years on record. However, NASA satellites and weather balloons rank the last 15 years as the coolest years in earth’s history since satellite measurements began in 1978.
The second reason was the reliance on computer models that were too crude to predict future climate changes. Predictions of global climate change are based on general circulation models, complex computer programs that attempt to simulate the earth’s atmosphere, but they have been unreliable as predictors of future climates.
The maddening part is that now the overwhelming burden of proof shouts that climate change is happening. The Intergovernment al Panel on Climate Change reported in 2005 that of the 750 scientific papers published since 2000 on the topic of climate change, not one of them disputes that climate change is ongoing.
The U.S. National Policy and Analysis Council never disputed, but also never officially recognized that climate change was ongoing. The council claimed that the U.S. would have to cut its energy use by 25 per cent, the equivalent of stopping all highway, rail, sea, and air traffic permanently in order to meet the requirements of Kyoto.
That prompted the U.S. to withdraw support from the accord. President George W. Bush said that meeting the target of reducing U.S. emissions to previous levels would be too great an economic burden.
This was the dirty little secret behind Kyoto. The U.S. chose economic growth over reducing emissions – but so did many of the countries that signed on to the Kyoto agreement.
Canada, known at one time as the Champion of Kyoto, bailed out in June 2006 when the Conservatives admitted they could not meet the agreement’s targets. Last week, Ambrose drove the nail into the coffin. The accord never had a chance.
Not only did the Conservative government admit they could not meet the targets of cutting emissions by six per cent to reach 1990 levels, but Canada found itself in an unflattering and embarrassing position of having increased its emissions already by 24 per cent, higher even than the U.S. at 15.8 per cent above 1990 levels.
Western European countries, the harbingers of Kyoto, have for the third year in a row accumulated 15 per cent more emissions, putting them in worse shape than the U.S. but in better shape than Canada. Last month, 11 of the 15 countries that signed the accord announced that they could not meet their targets.
Kyoto supporters acknowledge that the agreement represented a first step toward achieving the goal set by the original climate agreement: to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere “at a level that would prevent dangerous interference with the climate system.”
Unlike the 1990 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, which stated that it will “solve” the problem of ozone depletion, the Kyoto Accord never committed to solving the problem of climate change, but only to begin the long process of weaning the world away from heavy reliance on fossil fuels.
This would require energy policy reform and investments in new research and development projects to bring low-emission technologies to market, which, in an odd twist, is a part of the federal government’s strategy announced last week.
Dr Robert Watson, chief scientist on Climate Change for the World Bank suggested that, “Kyoto is unlikely to have much impact in stopping the effects of global warming, but it will open doors for the production of more energy-efficient technologies.”
If these doors are opened, we may see Kyoto for what it always was. Like the Montreal Protocol, which evolved from a weak agreement into a model environmental treaty that did help repair the ozone hole, Kyoto has always supported innovative research and development and its evolution can only move in that direction.
The real hope among environmentalists and concerned citizens is that Kyoto will not be remembered as a broad, rhetorical, self-congratulatory design, or one that will do nothing but describe our existing environmental problems, develop costly programs and then do little to redirect them or attempt to spin off some good.
There is hope.
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