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Kyoto's prospects after Russia's nod

The Russian cabinet's formal approval of the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty to combat climate change, sparked effusive praise yesterday from environmentalists around the world, in no small part because so many had written the treaty off months ago.

Since last December, when a senior Kremlin official pointedly played down the chances of Russian ratification, the protocol has been on life support. Only with Russian approval could the combined signatories reach the 55 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions called for under the treaty. Without yesterday's decision, which is certain to get resounding support in the Kremlin-dominated Duma, Kyoto would have spiralled into irrelevance, with former adherents setting new independent standards for emission reductions, or none at all.

And yet, the treaty's many advocates should hold the champagne and temper their glee. Though back on track to a degree, Kyoto remains deeply, fundamentally flawed. The agreement may yet fall apart, if not from official spurning then from its own internal contradictions and failings. It is widely believed that Russian President Vladimir Putin acceded to the protocol only as a means of securing European support for his country's entry into the World Trade Organization. Politicians in other countries, Canada included, have had their own political reasons for signing on. But at some stage, the jawboning must translate into hard policy that reduces emissions around the world, or the protocol is meaningless. So far, there is precious little evidence of that happening.

Consider that, without participation from the United States, which pulled out of the treaty three years ago, and with fast-growing, populous developing nations such as Brazil, India, Indonesia and China not required to reduce emissions before 2012 (and possibly thereafter), the near-term impact on greenhouse-gas levels will be nil. Indeed, there's evidence that China -- already the world's second-biggest producer of greenhouse gases, even though its industrial economy is in its infancy -- will alone be responsible for a huge increase in global greenhouse gases in the next half-decade. China's billion-person economy is growing at 8 per cent a year, creating enormous global demand for energy and raw materials. In their efforts to meet that demand, Chinese power plants are burning ever more coal, the most polluting of all energy sources. Meantime, automobile sales are skyrocketing. General Motors has predicted that, between 2002 and 2012, China will account for 18 per cent of global growth in new-car sales, compared with 11 per cent for the United States and 9 per cent for India.

Here at home, few believe the Canadian government's plan will have any impact, good or bad, for the simple reason that the plan lacks both detail and teeth. When the Chrétien government first began making noises about ratification, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein raised a storm of economic concerns -- many of them legitimate -- that resulted in broad guarantees to the petroleum industry that their emission-control costs would be capped. Consumers also got a get-out-of-jail-free card. The federal Kyoto plan contains no plans for a carbon tax, an SUV tax or any other kinds of stern incentives likely to spur energy and fuel conservation. As a consequence, there remain huge gaps in the federal government's plan for reducing emissions by 240 megatonnes by 2012.

That said, the news is not all bad. Even if the Kyoto Protocol fails in the purpose for which it was intended, efforts to implement it will curb energy consumption to some degree. Public pressure will cause some industries in non-signatory countries, particularly the United States, to change their ways (as appears to be happening in California, where regulators last week approved the first rule limiting greenhouse-gas emissions from cars and trucks). And the new, cleaner technology that arises from these efforts may yet spread to countries such as China, India and Brazil, allowing them to bypass at least part of the polluting phase of industrial development. The Kyoto Protocol is no solution to climate change, but it may yet become the start of one.

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