Why Canada Kissed Kyoto Good-bye

Why Canada Kissed Kyoto Good-bye

Realism drove Canada to shed the handcuffs of the Kyoto Protocol.


When Canadian environment minister Peter Kent announced that Canada was withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol at the COP-17 Climate Change conference in Johannesburg earlier this month, he articulated a view that environment ministers from most large, developed, carbon-emitting countries must have shared:

The Kyoto Protocol is not where the solution lies—it is an agreement that covers fewer than 30 per cent of global emissions. It is an approach that does not lead to more comprehensive engagement of key parties who need to be actively part of a global agreement. Nor does it provide for individual countries to take action that reflects national circumstances. . . . Kyoto, for Canada, is in the past.


Let’s translate that into realpolitik: Canada has saved itself from the heavy costs of the Kyoto agreement. The deal would have cost every family in Canada at least €1000 (a low estimate). Achieving the goal of the original Kyoto deal, keeping so-called emissions at 6 percent below 1990 levels or thereabouts, would triple that cost estimate. Canada is already 33 percent above its 1990 emissions levels, reflecting Canada's underlying economic growth and strength. The future of Canada’s economy lies in pumping gas out of Albertan shale and tar, and that will emit lots and lots of carbon. Under the Kyoto Protocols, Canada would pay for the emissions while larger emitters, i.e. China, would not. Kyoto was not in Canada’s national interest, and that’s why Canada’s out.

Canada’s withdrawal signals a shift underway across developed nations: in an era of fiscal retrenchment, or worse, full-on financial crisis, paying for climate change does not appeal to voters. There surely was opposition when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien ratified Kyoto in 2002, but it remained a very popular initiative, ensuring Canada would be a “good citizen” of the world, as Chrétien put it. Fast forward ten years. The liberal party Chrétien headed has imploded electorally, and the conservative government of Stephen Harper, newly emboldened by a landslide electoral win in 2011, has promised a pro-growth strategy. Even the Canadian Left, once extremely green, is now too focused on various “occupy” movements and the “1 percent” to think about climate policy.

A rule in studying Canada’s international relations is to ask: What would America do? Tellingly, as Canada was letting fly with its climate-policy starburst, a Fourth-of-July firework on the economic horizon, the United States continued with its “carbon, who cares?” policy. As part of Congress’ year-end legislation, the house mitigated the wacky ban on 100-watt incandescent light bulbs. The green lobby had overreached itself with that one: Their attempt to darken the work of Thomas Edison could not pass the laugh test. But the larger point is that the United States is not part of the Kyoto Protocol, and neither its industrial nor automotive emissions standards are at all in keeping with it. As America goes, so goes Canada, and America has not and will not join Kyoto.

It’s worth mentioning as well that the Canadian decision was accompanied by an announcement from Russia. Russia also has decided to continue to develop and grow its economy, including its energy exports, by freeing itself from Kyoto tie-downs. There's plenty of cool calculation in the Canadian and Russian decisions. Both nations are commodity exporters as well as energy producers.

Canada has weathered the recession much better than anyone else in the G7 partly because it abstained from running up big debts or printing excessive paper money. But another reason is the strong demand for exports of raw materials and energy. America depends on Canada for about 25 percent of its energy imports. The climate-obsessed green groupies have so far prevailed upon Obama to prevent the construction of the Keystone pipeline, an oil pipe that would add 8 percent to America's energy inventory by carrying oil pumped out of Canada’s carbon-emitting Albertan oil sands—and ensure that U.S. firms refine all of that crude. Obama’s cave-in is likely to be only a short-run setback: if Obama wins in 2012, he will no longer need his green buddies, and his own union constituency, much in need of the jobs the project will furnish, will push him to allow the new oil to flow. If he loses, wasn’t the Republican chant in 2008 “drill, baby, drill”?

Russia too is a vital source of energy exports; in their case, for all of Europe. If either Canada or Russia were forced to wear Kyoto handcuffs, those essential exports would fall off and the rest of the world, developed and developing, could be pushed back into a recession. Ironically, China objected to all this. Have the communists over there suddenly turned green? Not at all. All the decisions above reflect not just common sense but also national interest, with the latter coming first. China, along with other developing nations, is very little constrained by Kyoto. The developing world is poised to grow if not free, perhaps rich. It develops at a pace that induces wonder and envy here in the West. Nonetheless, even as developing nations outpace Europe and North America, Kyoto is designed to give them subsidies from the West in amounts that further disadvantage the developed world. China's complaints have more to do with cold cash and its place in international power strata than global warming, just as Canada’s and Russia’s withdrawal from the treaty can be explained by the same metrics.

Canada's departure from Kyoto has put $1600 into every Canadian family’s bank account. At the same time, by allowing Canada to go ahead developing oil properties, the decision will keep a cap on crude prices and allow developing nations to grow and prosper. Canada may, by developing oil sands, diminish American dependence on Middle Eastern energy. Most importantly, the decision protects the Canadian economy from the recession that has gripped Europe. It was the right thing to do.

Professor Tom Velk is director of North American Studies at McGill University.