Scitech  Kyoto sunset

Canada becomes the first country to withdraw from the Kyoto protocol

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, vying for Canada’s 12th “Fossil of the Day” award – given to the most environmentally retroactive country by the Climate Action Network – became the first Kyoto signatory to formally break its commitments to the protocol in mid-December 2011. First put in place in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was an international agreement to cut down on global carbon emissions in an attempt to mitigate some of the more dire effects expected from anthropogenic climate change.

The Canadian government, which has been a long-time critic of Kyoto, the only legally binding greenhouse gas agreement in existence, cited the fact that both China and the United States were not members of the Kyoto accord, and thus not bound to pay the significant costs that were set to be imposed on Canada. Collectively, those countries alone produce around 40 per cent of the total global emissions, whereas Canada produces less than 2 per cent. However, since the Chrétien government signed the protocol in 1997, per-capita emissions of Canadians have risen over 25 per cent from the specified target of a 6 per cent decrease from 1990 levels.

Under the penalties formerly agreed to in the accord, this increase over the prescribed limit meant Canada would have been  legally obligated to buy carbon credits to account for this difference. During the announcement of the withdrawal, Environment Minister Peter Kent cited a cost of almost 14 billion dollars for these credits, and blamed the previous Liberal government as they were in power for a significant amount of time during these changes. In reality, the growth rate  across all sectors has been about the same regardless of who’s in charge, and it is set to increase, since oil sand production well surpasses one million barrels a day.

Currently, there is no further binding legal agreement in place to take over when Kyoto expires. The last three international conferences in Copenhagen, Cancun, and Durban resulted in a few successful policy agreements, but lacked Kyoto’s legal binding. The lack of a universally agreed upon standard in the face of this global problem is the primary issue with much of the policy discussion that has happened in the last decade. This is the troubling reality of climate change; while we dither and bicker about who ought to suffer the most cutbacks, we continue to collectively belch another 10 billion tons of gas into the atmosphere per year. As such, some of the more noble goals of the original Kyoto Protocol may already be beyond our grasp.

There are serious concerns that we are well on track to exceed the two degrees global warming that is generally agreed upon as the limit for dangerous climate change. A recently released study in the Royal Society of Philosophical Transactions entitled “Beyond Dangerous Climate Change” calls into question the very idea that the two degree warming is the threshold for acceptable. This paper now puts that two degree limit as the threshold between “dangerous” and “extremely dangerous”. More troublingly, they estimate the probability of exceeding this limit as extremely high.

If we continue business as usual – which seems to be the most likely outcome – then we must understand that mitigation is incompatible with our current method of economic growth. Investing in “green” technologies – such as nuclear, solar, and wind power for – could still grow our economy – without the negative consequences of fossil fuels. Furthermore, even if we were to stop global emissions today, the lag between our emissions and their effect on the climate means we can already expect at least a half degree of further warming, an increasingly acidified ocean that threatens nearly a quarter of the world’s food supply, a thermally expanding sea submerging low lying coasts and islands, and increased melting of permanent ice to further contribute to sea level rise.

Interestingly, the only time in the last few decades that our cumulative emissions have actually decreased was during the global recession in 2008. During that year, the rate of emissions declined by about 3 per cent. To seriously have a chance of offsetting the dangerous climate change to come, we’d have to reach peak oil by 2015, and globally reduce our consumption by twice the rate we saw during the great recession every year until we hit zero. Studies on coral blanching suggest that this process will continue at CO2 levels of as low as 430 parts per million (ppm), whereas even the most conservative estimates of our total emissions usually center on a final value of 550 ppm.

We have enough oil, gas, and coal reserves to last for decades, potentially hundreds of years of growing business as usual. There will be more of us – potentially 9 billion of us by 2050 – all vying for the same quality of life we enjoy today, which is only made fully possible by the continued exploitation of the ecosystem.

The choices we need to make today will not be made by governments whose primary purpose to be re-elected. The scale of the problem is well beyond the lifetime of one government, which is miniscule compared to how long the effects of climate change will be felt. It is not in the government’s interest to deal with this problem, and it will never be unless we hold them accountable. The fact that governments are able to use even the most basic carbon tax as a successful scare tactic for election campaigns shows our own recalcitrance.

As Canadians, we are responsible for one of the world’s highest per-capita emissions. Our place in the world ought to be to demonstrate that a more sustainable lifestyle is possible. While cumulatively our emissions are not that important on a global scale, we must demonstrate that a “first world” lifestyle is possible, even without the exploitation of the environment.

However, part of this new carbon-free lifestyle is acknowledging that there are things we must give up. Air travel as we know it is would not be possible – modern technology has no sustainable alternative to airplanes. Eating meat at every meal is not sustainable. Having access to products that must travel hundreds of kilometres, using current shipping technologies, to reach us is not possible if we wish to live an emission free life. On behalf of the hundreds of generations that will bear the economic cost of our exceedingly selfish behaviour – and current generations – we must voluntarily commit ourselves to bearing these costs.