Every time there is a Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), people who want Canada to continue to do little or nothing about climate change bring up the flaws of the Kyoto Protocol as an argument against action.
This argument is flawed. The problems with Kyoto make it more important to develop an effective global agreement now, and that requires countries like Canada to lead the way in reducing their domestic greenhouse gas pollution.
The UNFCCC and Kyoto
To explain briefly, the 1992 UNFCCC is a framework convention that sets out the world’s general objective when it comes to climate change: preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was the first major attempt to make concrete progress toward that objective. Some (rich) states got emission reduction targets which they agreed to meet by 2012. Other (poorer) states did not have targets, but there were systems established to encourage them to reduce emissions as well, partly through financial help from richer countries directed through institutions like the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).
Kyoto was an experiment in coordinated global action on climate change, and many things have gone wrong with it. The United States never joined the agreement. Some countries (like Canada) have ignored the targets they agreed to and are now producing much more pollution than they were meant to at this point. Countries like India and China, which had no targets, have seen their emissions grow rapidly. There have been problems with the CDM, such as dubious transactions involving HFC-23. Kyoto also ignores the major issue of pollution that is effectively ’embedded’ in imports.
Whole books could be (and have been) written about the flaws of Kyoto. That being said, it is wrong to see those flaws and conclude that it is no problem for Canada to ignore its Kyoto obligations, or for the UNFCCC process to fall apart. The fact of the matter is that dealing with climate change requires global action. Countries like Canada have become rich on the basis of burning fossil fuels, and currently produce an excessively high level of greenhouse gas emissions per person. It makes sense that countries like Canada lead the way on emissions reduction – a general policy known as contraction and convergence.
The challenge of climate change
If the world continues on the path of carbon-intensive economic activity, we are setting ourselves up to dramatically transform the planet’s climate by the end of this century, with severe consequences for people all over the world. Preventing dangerous or catastrophic climate change requires limiting how much greenhouse gas pollution gets added to the atmosphere; that, in turn, requires that the world abandon fossil fuels and move on to zero-carbon forms of energy. Achieving that transition will be challenging and costly, but so is our continued dependence on fossil fuels. Instead of spending billions developing deepwater oil fields off the coast of Brazil, fracking shale gas in North America, or exploiting Canada’s oil sands, we could be investing our money and effort on the transition to a renewably-based zero-carbon economy of the sort described by David MacKay.
In summary: yes, there are problems with Kyoto. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore climate change. Dealing with the problem requires coordinated international action, and it requires that countries like Canada:
- (a) take responsibility for the harm they have already caused by altering the climate through fossil fuel use,
- (b) take the lead in developing a domestic energy system that is compatible with a stable climate, while phasing out fossil fuels, and
- (c) help the rest of the world to achieve the same transition.
Doing our part in a fair global deal requires a willingness to compensate countries that will suffer from the climate change we have caused, and help them to develop on a safer trajectory than we did.
Our current approach doesn’t even make sense from the perspective of pure economic calculation. At some point in the future, the world as a whole will finally realize just how damaging and dangerous climate change is. When that happens, there will be a collective realization that extracting fossil fuels from shale gas and the oil sands is absolutely the last thing we should be doing. The billions of dollars invested in the technology and the infrastructure used to do that will be wasted when those facilities are forced to close down. On top of that, we will suffer the expense of the additional climate harms that arise because of our delay. Finally, we will need to deploy a zero-carbon energy basis for our economy on a compressed timeline, which is sure to be more expensive than undertaking the task over a longer span of time. It is far more intelligent to build the right thing in the first place than it is to:
- build the wrong thing (at great expense),
- suffer the consequences of that choice (at great expense),
- and then build the right thing in a hurry (at great expense).
There are also major additional benefits associated with an early transition away from fossil fuels: greater geopolitical stability, less air pollution, less water pollution, less destruction of land, etc.
The failure of the Kyoto Protocol to curb the growth in global emissions means we face a bigger problem now than in 1997 and that we have less time to deal with it. The way to do that is to engage constructively with the international community and help drive the emergence of a fair deal, while taking meaningful steps domestically to decarbonize our economy. What we absolutely not do is use the problems with Kyoto as an excuse to continue on a carbon-intensive path of economic development that sacrifices the vital interests of future generations for the short-term profit of those alive and making decisions right now.