Kyoto might be finished, but what next?

There's news of European Union pressure on China to explain what sort of obligations it might be ready to adopt

The policy Stephen Harper’s government on climate change has been so weak that anyone interested in the issue could be forgiven for assuming that the official Canadian stance going into this month’s negotiations in Durban, South Africa is indefensible.

Environment Minister Peter Kent has been brushing aside questions about persistent reports that Canada plans to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol at the close of the conference, which is meant to set the stage for a new phase in the global protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Kent’s tactical evasiveness looks shifty. It would be better for him to come clean now that the question of Canada’s intentions is such an open one. Still, it’s worth considering that pulling out of Kyoto might be a respectable outcome—if there’s a real prospect of something better taking its place.

The fundamental question is whether the accord can be widened, as it surely must be, to require fast-developing countries, like China and Brazil, join the rich industrialized nations in accepting mandatory emissions cuts. That’s the Canadian government’s basic position. And it is also put forward this month in an editorial in the highly regarded science journal Nature.

Back when Kyoto was being negotiated in the 1990s, the editorial points out, it was still possible to divide the world into rich (high emitting) and poor (low emitting) countries. But now 58 per cent of global emissions are coming from developing economies. That can’t be ignored.

Nature contends that even if  “a handful of rich nations still bear a heavy historical burden for global warming, it is unrealistic to expect today’s politicians, who can barely look forward more than the next four or five years, to look back two centuries into the past.”

To get the the two biggest fossil-fuel burners, the United States and China, to agree to mandatory controls, the next stage of global climate-control action must somehow be made much wider than the Kyoto—and so Nature concludes the protocol should be allowed to die in Durban.

What might come next? Well, there’s news of European Union pressure on China to explain what sort of obligations it might be ready to adopt. Skeptical that Beijing will ever agree to anything substantial? That’s understandable. Yet I’d rather far see the Canada siding with the EU in at least trying to forge ahead, instead of being lumped in with Russia and Japan as a country that merely refuses to agree to any new goals.

Nature‘s stance might give a responsible intellectual justification for letting Kyoto lapse, but it hardly lifts the obligation from the Canadian government to make constructive efforts to be part of what comes next. So far, there’s no sign of that.

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