It is time for Canada to get out of the Kyoto straitjacket

Canadians cling to the protocol fantasy, but few actually know what's in it

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The Gazette, Monday, February 5, 2007

In the space of just one year, the environment has risen to 26 per cent from only four per cent as the most important issue facing Canada, according to a poll by the Strategic Counsel. Only health care, the previous top concern for years, even comes close at 18 per cent. All the other issues - including taxes, government spending and unemployment - are well down in single digits.

In another poll, by Angus Reid, the environment scores even higher at 35 per cent, beating health care at 19 per cent by a margin of nearly 2-1. In Quebec, the environment soars to 45 per cent as the most important issue. Most of the other issues, including the economy and Afghanistan, barely break five per cent.

Such a rapid rise in identifying the importance of a single issue is driven by saturation media coverage and is probably unsustainable.

Asked by the Strategic Counsel to name the biggest environmental threat to Canada, 38 per cent chose global warming and climate change compared to only 16 per cent for air pollution and smog, although 62 per cent saw the two issues as the same.

And what's driving those numbers? Canadians can see it out their windows and on their televisions. Golf in January, the melting of the polar ice cap, the polar bear flagged as an endangered species. Seventy-eight per cent of respondents, and 83 per cent in Quebec, told the Strategic Counsel they've noticed climate change and think it's related to global warming. Seventy-three per cent, 76 per cent in Quebec, agree global warming is the result of human activity. And 83 per cent, 89 per cent in Quebec, "feel that global warming has the potential to harm future generations."

This is what pollsters call a "legacy number"- a concern about the kind of country we'll leave our children. And this number is huge.

And it's probably out of this concern that 63 per cent of respondents, 76 per cent in Quebec, think Canada should keep its Kyoto commitments, even though most have no idea what they are and whether they can be achieved.

And it's why Stephane Dion and the Liberals used their opposition day last week to table a motion calling on the government to reaffirm Canada's commitment to reduce greenhouse- gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012.

With Canada 27 per cent above 1990 levels, that's a 33-per-cent miss. It can't be done. Even Dion admits the target is unattainable unless the government falls and he's elected, right now in 2007. By next year, even by his admission, it would be too late.

So why do the opposition parties cling to the Kyoto fantasy, when all the empirical evidence suggests it can't be done in the short term? And why would we waste billions of dollars buying emissions credits from the Europeans, which would not reduce our emissions one iota? That's an Enron formula - cooking the environmental books.

Simply put, because of the power of the Kyoto brand. Everyone's heard of it. And who could be against it? Knowing what's in it, that's different. People see government and industry as the problem, not their own activity. Give up our SUVs? No way.

But it's time to get out of the Kyoto straitjacket and move beyond 2012 to a more realistic target date, say, 2017.

Long term, the Harper government initially proposed reductions of up to 66 per cent by 2050, as recommended by the National Round Table on the Environment . This was ridiculed in the bungled announcement of the Clean Air bill as a not-in-our-lifetime target .

In the special committee struck at their request, the NDP has asked for steeper long-term targets, and the trade-off could be the government accepting its 80-per-cent emissions reductions over the long term in return for moving the goal posts back from 2012 in the short term. It's clean, it's simple, it's a solution. It's the essence of Canadian compromise.

The Liberals and Bloc would freak out about Canada abandoning its unattainable commitments. But that's not Jack Layton's problem. He's got the balance of power. He can use it to deliver results on climate change, and marginalize Elizabeth May and the Greens on the left.

It isn't just Layton holding the balance of power that has changed the dynamic of the debate in the last month. The stakeholders are engaging with the new minister, John Baird.

For example, the head of the Round Table, Glen Murray, an appointee of the Martin government, tried to be helpful to Baird last week, referring to the box in which Canada finds itself.

"We're sort of in this Kyoto box," Murray said. "I think we just have to end that conversation."

The place to do that, and to move on from it, is in the special House committee.

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