Stephen Leahy* - Tierramérica

TORONTO, Dec 9 2006 (IPS) — Much to the surprise of most Canadians and the world community, Canada is reneging on its international commitments under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which could weaken an international agreement to fight climate change after Kyoto expires in 2012.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, elected early this year, and the new environment minister, Rona Ambrose, have dismissed Canada’s Kyoto commitments for reducing greenhouse gases as impossible to achieve.

They have also cancelled a five-million-dollar pledge to help least developed countries adapt to the impacts of climate change and have withdrawn Canada’s participation and funding of the Kyoto Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

“That’s totally irresponsible… It’s a slap in the face to the people of small island states and Inuit people of the North,” said Enele Sopoaga, permanent representative of Tuvalu to the United Nations. His small island country in the South Pacific is experiencing flooding due to rising sea levels.

“I am extremely frustrated by the double standards of industrialised nations. Canada criticises other countries about their human rights policies or about the death penalty while they are playing with the lives of island people and the Inuit,” Sopoaga said in a Tierramérica interview.

In an unusual move, Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme chastised Canada in the news media.

Appealing to the Canadian business sector, Steiner said that backing away from Kyoto would harm the country’s economy, and business would be left out of the international greenhouse gas emissions trading system that may be worth 100 billion dollars by 2016.

Ironically, Canada had been a champion of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to reduce emissions that contribute to the atmospheric greenhouse effect. Under Kyoto, 35 industrialised nations, including Canada, are obligated to reduce their emissions by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012.

But Canada’s emissions have risen 30 percent since 1990, mainly due to a booming oil and natural gas sector. By comparison, U.S. emissions rose 16 percent in the same period.

At the recent XII UN Conference on Climate Change, in Nairobi, Environment Minister Rona Ambrose publicly blamed the previous Canadian government for inaction on the matter.

Ambrose was widely criticised for that statement. Sopoaga says such attitudes undermine the basis for international cooperation: “You can’t have a group of cowards come into power and say we’re not going to keep international commitments made by a previous government.”

Canadians widely support the Kyoto Protocol and want action on climate change. A public opinion poll taken Nov. 10-16 by Ipsos Reid found that Canadians place climate change as a top issue of concern, more important than jobs, the economy or healthcare.

“The climate change issue could bring down the government, (which) is not listening to the people,” Johanna Whitmore, of the Pembina Institute, a Canadian environmental group, told Tierramérica.

In fact, most Canadians did not vote for Harper. Canada’s multi-party system allowed the Conservative Party to win with just 36 percent of the popular vote. As a result, the Harper administration needs the cooperation of at least one other party to stay in power.

Canada’s oil, coal and gas sector is making the country rich. That sector is responsible for much of the increase in emissions, and the previous and current governments are reluctant to do anything that might slow the energy boom.

As an alternative to Kyoto, the Harper government’s “Made-in-Canada climate plan”, announced last month, set a goal of cutting emissions of greenhouse gases 45 to 65 percent below 2003 levels by 2050. Such a long-term goal allows the current government to postpone action on climate change indefinitely, says Whitmore.

Unfortunately the Kyoto agreement doesn’t have any financial penalties for failing to meet the emissions reduction target. All that happens is that countries have to make up for their shortfall plus an additional 1.3 percent penalty in the next reduction commitment period of 2013 to 2018.

In fact, the Harper government has cut funding for environmental programmes designed to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“By its actions, Canada’s government shows that it doesn’t think climate change is a real issue,” Whitmore said.

Canada’s Inuit people, who live in the far north and Arctic areas, know it’s a real issue.

“We see signs every day up here. It’s quite obvious,” said Duane Smith, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council – Canada, from Inuvik, a small town 200 km north of the Arctic Circle.

“Winter starts later and leaves sooner, there are changes in the sea and river ice, we get more snow – and its affecting all the wildlife,” Smith told Tierramérica.

Scientists have also documented a wide range of changes due to climate change. Neither Harper nor Ambrose have visited Canada’s far north to see the impacts first hand, according to Smith.

“I believe very strongly that Canadians want more aggressive action on the issue,” he added.

(*Stephen Leahy is an IPS correspondent. Originally published Dec. 1 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)


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