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Canada's Game: Climate Charade

Source: The Globe and Mail Tuesday, November 14, 2000


The political fate of the United States of America is in limbo -- largely due to the "green split" resulting when environmentally concerned voters chose Ralph Nader over Al Gore in key states. As Canadians head into our own federal election, it's time to put it to the candidates: Why is Canada trying to gut one of the most significant global environmental laws in history?

For years, Canada's leading climate negotiators have been eviscerating our role as a global environmental watchdog, hiding under the brain-numbing details of a complex international legal process. This week the spotlight will shine on their accomplishments -- or our collective shame.

From Nov. 13-24, Canada and other nations are gathering in The Hague to hammer out the next wave of negotiations on climate change. This is "do or die" time: We are getting very close to finally, formally ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, a law aimed at reversing the devastating effects of greenhouse-gas emissions on our planet's atmosphere. This week's conference marks the deadline for making decisions on key mechanisms set out under the Kyoto Protocol.

We will either bite the bullet and make firm commitments to pollute less, or continue on our current trajectory toward catastrophic climate change -- larger and more frequent extreme weather events, increased drought, flooding of low-lying coastal regions, the northern migration of malaria and other insect-born diseases, and a host of other devastating environmental and health impacts. The consensus of the world's leading scientists indicates that it really is that simple. But Canada, like the craftiest of backroom lawyers, is promoting a series of legal loopholes, most of which would actually increase greenhouse-gas emissions.

The whole intent of the Kyoto Protocol, of course, is to do the opposite. Under its provisions, Canada has committed, by 2010, to cutting greenhouse gases by 6 per cent from 1990 levels. (In fact, we have failed utterly so far; in 1998, Canada's emissions were 13-per-cent greater than 1990 levels, and they continue to rise.) Smooth as ice, Canada is now pushing for a "flexible" approach -- a series of loopholes that would let us pollute more without breaking the law. Here are three:

"Hot air": The Kyoto Protocol gives developed countries quotas of allowable pollution and allows countries to trade their quotas. While pollution-quota trading doesn't result in lower overall emissions, it can reduce the costs of emission reduction. However, Canada supports rules under which countries can trade "hot air," and global emissions can climb. The Kyoto Protocol currently gives economically depressed countries, such as Russia and Ukraine (where widespread factory shutdowns have reduced the pollutants being pumped into the atmosphere), pollution quotas that allow for higher pollution levels, if and when industrial economic activities increase in the future. Canada wants to be able to buy the surplus quotas so that we can continue polluting, and technically meet the Kyoto Protocol provisions. Without restriction on "hot air," such trading allows industrialized nations to pollute 7-per-cent more.

Credit for forests: Canada and certain other nations have vast stretches of forests that each year inhale billions of tons of carbon dioxide, the most significant greenhouse gas. Canada wants a tonne of pollution quotas for every tonne of carbon dioxide inhaled by our forests. Such credits would allow industrialized countries to emit an extra two billion tonnes of greenhouse-gas pollution per year -- a 12-per-cent increase from their Kyoto limit.

Overselling emission quotas: Some observers fear that cash-starved countries will sell pollution quotas and then go ahead and pollute anyway, greatly increasing total emissions. Canada argues that if Russia sells all its pollution quotas without reducing emissions, we and other quota buyers should still be able to use the Russian quotas to pollute more. While some countries are pressing for safeguards, or arguing that quota buyers have a responsibility to make sure real reductions happen, Canada is opposing these measures.

So, this week, what's it going to be? Will our leaders get the message that has shaken America, and deliver what Canadians have been demanding for years? Or will it be business as usual in the arcane world of international environmental law? Here at The Hague, I and my Canadian colleagues are watching.

Chris Rolfe, a lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law, is representing Canadian conservation organizations at The Hague throughout the climate summit.

Source: The Globe and Mail