Somebody Else’s Problem- Negotiating in a Climate of Denial

by Chris Bisson

This blogpost represents the opinions and views of an individual and does not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Youth Delegation and related organisations.

Yesterday’s speech by Canada’s environment minister in the COP17 high levels comes amid great international disgust for the country’s climate policy.  While the minister extolled fabrications of Canada’s domestic environmental policy and international charity, the speech was silent on many points of outrage buzzing amongst other parties.  At the heart of this speech is an ideologically-driven understanding of the climate crisis, which seems to inform the minister’s claims of political and scientific reality.  Here is a brief analysis of the speech.

The minister begins the speech asserting that “reasonable Canadians” are people that note climate change as requiring “global solutions”.  Though seemingly inane, this moment perhaps reveals most clearly the minister’s message.  Here – a quick aside to discuss this claim of rationalism – within the history of modern politics, in absence of a religiously-driven structure of politics, states have often sought to discipline regime-threatening narratives through claims to sanity; insanity – of course, is then deemed as inferior, just as religious “good” is set apart from “evil”.  The logic of this claim is that to be rational (or sane) is to think that climate change requires international solutions.  The message then is that Canada is no more responsible for the crisis than any other party, and to think otherwise would mean that you are not a person who’s opinions is worthy of being valued by society.  This is a pretty stark opening.

The minister then refers to Canada as a “willing partner” in managing climate change.  This seems deliberately vague.  One could equally be a “willing participant” waiting in line to use the toilet, it is a statement that holds no substance.  However, if this is meant to reference Canada as negotiating cooperatively, “willing” could not be farther from the truth.  Beyond the complaints by least developed country parties to the South African High Commissioner in Ottawa of being “strong-armed” by Canada with aid out of the Kyoto Protocol, there is the obvious fact that Canada has announced its intention not to cooperate in a second phase of the Kyoto Protocol, and will not deny that it plans on leaving the first one.  Canada has also been lobbying the United States and the European Union to weaken fuel quality standards, and has been linked to the failure of the EU to adopt a stronger 30% emissions targets (up from 20%) in the past few months.  With help from the United Kingdom, Canada has also helped sabotage a recent vote on the EU fuel quality directive that was supposed to be voted on last week, but was pushed to January.  Beyond this, Canada is the only country that signed and ratified the legally-binding Kyoto Protocol to formally back out; Canada does not even seem close to achieving its already woefully inadequate new targets.

Canada then says that it wants a deal with commitments from all major emitters.  With the fallout of an increasing number of countries from any legally-binding agreement, Canada is refusing to jump on any of the initiatives currently being given.  Instead, they are following the lead of the United States who is only willing to accept voluntary targets.  This has a cascading effect.  India has then stated that they do not want to enter a legally binding agreement because it thinks this should not be the responsibility of developing countries.  Canada could intervene; as a country with tremendous influence on the United States through its energy supply it could back a China or EU-lead initiative and try to pressure them in.  Initiative and leadership is cumulative and contagious, but Canada is too scared (or not serious enough) to take this leap.  Though the leadership must be genuine – the minister’s statement today, that they are willing to sign onto a legally binding agreement by 2015 must not be mistaken as such leadership.  There is nothing new to this claim other than it sets a specific date.  There is also nothing to suggests that targets will be ambitious or equitably administered.  Both the United States and Canada sing praises about the outcome of the Copenhagen Accord as if it was some breakthrough, however it was a co-opted and deliberately weakened version on the similarly named Copenhagen Accord proposed by the small-island state party of Tuvalu in 2009.

The minister expressed concern for the weakness of the current KP and any subsequent periods as the basis of its not participating.  This misses the spirit of the protocol completely.  When first established, it was only meant to act as a simple first-step.  A second period is only intended to be a gap-free transition period while moving towards a more comprehensive, ambitious and legally-binding agreement.  The failure to make this weak protocol work shows an egregious lack of concern for the IPCC scientific findings as well as international leadership.

Canada then mentions that the “national circumstance” of individual countries must be taken into account when considering an approach, which KP supposedly does not allow.  This is another deliberately vague position, because how could one argue this one way or another.  Despite the meaninglessness of this statement, it does not in any respect justify Canada not accepting a second period or backing out of the first.  If “national circumstance” were to imply that each party’s capacity to mitigate should be taken into consideration then Canada is among the most capable to meet its KP targets.  There was a tone of austerity resonating within discussions during COP17, as countries – especially the EU, confront a rolling series of sovereign debt crises.  Canada, however, has no excuse.  With tremendous solar, wind and geothermal potential Canada should be able to make a just transition to a green energy economy fairly easily.  Furthermore with relatively stable monetary regulation on some aspects of financial markets, it emerged from the global economic recession far better than other countries.  In fact given the highly inflationary effect that developments in the oil and gas sectors of Canada has had on the dollar and living costs, Canada would probably benefit from easing, if not eliminating, subsidies on the industry.  Public investments in sustainable infrastructure such as high-speed rail would create more jobs, therefore reducing Canada’s high and rising debt-to-income ratio.  Furthermore if Canada is concerned for the national circumstances of climate-vulnerable nations that already face challenges of IMF debt and multinational export-oriented foreign investment, then it would not be offering adaptation financing in the form of loans!  Speaking more tangibly though, if “national circumstances” were to mean protecting national interests, then one might not think of a more salient interest than that of mitigating the environmental hazards caused by climate change and fossil fuel extraction.  To consider national circumstances more aptly ought to involve keeping the global average temperature rise below 1.5C.  If global temperatures rises above this, small island states and low-laying costal areas are likely to be inundated by rising sea levels.  There is no greater way to express concern for national circumstance than to ensure that the nation remains in existence physically!

The minister then discussed claims of domestic progress on meeting its targets.  In 1997 Canada signed on to the Kyoto Protocol committing it to reduce its emissions to 6% below 1990 levels between the period of 2008 to 2012, which was ratified in parliament on the 17th of December, 2002.  As two different ruling political regimes failed to operationalize these legally-binding commitments, the Government of Canada decided to violate international law in 2006 by stating that it would decide not to comply with the emissions targets.  After this, Canada played around with different ideas of how it would get out of having to have solid targets all together, following cues from the United States it tried to pass a series of intensity targets that would allow emissions to be tied to the country’s GDP, allowing overall emissions to continue rising close to business as usual.  Amid intense political pressure, and it no longer being politically possible to deny the existence of human-caused climate change, the Government of Canada pledged that it would follow a voluntary emissions target of 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.  Compared to its original targets that it is still legally obliged to fulfil, the voluntary targets will bring Canadian emissions roughly 3% above 1990 levels by 2012.  Worst of all is that Canada is still far away from accomplishing these targets.  The Government of Canada claims that it is around a quarter of the way to meeting its targets, this is based on Environment Canada’s 2009 estimates that Canada was at 690Mt of CO2e.  This way of representing Canada’s emissions is misleading.  The Government of Canada chooses 2005 as the base year, which is the highest CO2e emission on record in Canadian history.  They then use 2009 levels to suggest where it is at in meeting its weak targets, which is the lowest year of emissions since 2005 mostly because it was following the global economic recession, which had a serious impact on Canadian industry and transportation as evident from that year’s lower level of emissions intensity.  Reports keep coming out from the scientific and nongovernmental community that projections of Canada reaching its weaker targets is highly unlikely considering that projections do not count for the accelerating growth of the Alberta tar sands, which currently accounts for 10% of Canada’s gigatonne gap by Environment Canada’s own numbers.

Canada claims to be reducing emission through a “sector-by-sector” approach, which means that it will focus on one industry at a time to identify opportunities to reduce its emissions.  This approach is completely unnecessary, and excessive in terms of cost and time.  The only reason the Government of Canada chooses this approach is so that it can delay having to regulate the tar sands, Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore oil, and exploration in arctic drilling.  Some estimates are measuring that the Government of Canada subsidizes fossil fuel industries in the order of $4 billion per year, with $1.4 billion going directly to tar sands development on top of the 100% tax break on all capital gains until 2015 that they receive as well.

The minister also claimed that there were reductions in the transportation sector, but there has not been any additional vehicle emissions standards since 1999.  Canada actually has lower vehicle emissions standards than developing countries such as China.  Canada also does not seem to be taking any leadership on negotiating a deal to regulate bunker fuels used in international shipping.

Possibly the worst aspect of the minister’s speech (as well as Canada’s negotiation priorities by extension) was his announcement of Canada’s commitment to the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.  The insidious claim that CCS will be part of Canada’s emissions reduction strategy is a serious setback for Canada.  CCS involves scrubbing, capturing and compressing CO2 and injecting it in deep geological formations, or the capture of methane gas to be combusted for energy production.  The mechanics of CCS are about as physically absurd as tar sands production.  It requires far more energy to sequester, compress and submerge the emissions than it would take to simply transition to renewable and sustainable sources of energy.  Furthermore, the leakage risk that storing carbon in the ground presents strongly jeopardizes Canada’s emissions reductions.

Canada also reaffirms its commitment to dirty hydro electricity as a renewable source of energy, assuming that it reduces carbon emissions.  Dirty hydro is not an option for a low-carbon future.  Research presented over the past decade by organizations such as International Rivers has suggested that hydro electric reservoirs can emit just as many greenhouse gasses as conventional fossil fuel combustion.  The process of striping land of vegetation, mounting concrete barriers and flooding ground where organic matter is able to decompose anaerobically produces massive amounts of carbon dioxide, methane gas and nitrous oxide.  Furthermore hydro development, just like strip mineral mining or tar sands production, almost always violates the rights and sovereignty of Indigenous peoples.  It also contaminates water with methyl mercury, which is bioaccumulative, concentrating environmental toxins in large mammals, rendering them health hazards to consume.  This threatens the food security of Indigenous, isolated and northern communities most prone to the impacts of climate change.

At the end of the speech the minister announced Canada’s commitment of $1.2 billion dollars to the fast-start financing programme to help cover immediate mitigation and adaptation needs.  It also claims that it will contribute to the Green Climate Fund, but has not announced any solid amounts and has only contributed $300 million (in USD) to date.  This contribution is woefully inadequate considering the international need for $100 billion per year by 2020.  Furthermore, much of Canada’s financial commitments will be given out as loans to be allocated by the World Bank.  This is disappointing as it indicates the Government of Canada’s ignorance of human development needs, instead opting for commercial development, from which Canada will likely gain financial benefits.  The Government of Canada, the Green Climate Fund is a business plan to develop the Global South.

The minister claimed that it wants to operationalize the Cancun Agreement, an agreement it singlehandedly blocked for most of COP16 until Canada was severely pressured and it was weakened sufficiently enough for Canada to grudgingly accept it.

In the end, the minister claimed that “Canada is carrying [its] weight and doing [its] share”.  For the reasons described above it is evident that this claim is patently false, and Canada is in fact doing everything in can to further burden the international community and defer its share in the crisis to poor countries.

3 Responses to “Somebody Else’s Problem- Negotiating in a Climate of Denial”
  1. put me on the list of unreasonable canadians.

  2. jpgreenword says:

    Thank you for that summary.

    From what I’ve read, the minister’s speech was a textbook example of political spin. It is incredible disappointing that our Government is so driven to the expand the nation’s oil and gas industry. This is simply the wrong time in our history to do so. And, like you said, we have so much potential for renewable power which we are not exploiting.

    History will judge us very poorly for this day and age.

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