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Lacking leadership in a high-carbon world

Withdrawing from Kyoto would show that Canada is part of the problem rather than the solution

By Alanna Mitchell

First day of the international climate talks in Durban and — Bam! — the world wakes up to a “leaked” news report that Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, has decided to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.

The Durban talks are aimed at extending the Protocol and including more countries in its goal of reducing the carbon gases that are disturbing the climate and acidifying the seas.

But, just to make sure the big announcement doesn’t scotch the talks, the leak also says the Prime Minister is going to wait to withdraw until after the talks are done. Say, until a couple of days before Christmas when Canadians are in the throes of holiday baking and possibly less apt to notice. It makes you wonder why the leak happened at all.

Then, to make things muddier, Harper’s environment minister, Peter Kent, refuses to confirm or deny the news. All he will say is that the Kyoto Protocol is “unfair” (because it excludes big emitters like China and India), “certainly not effective” and that Canada has no plans to sign on to its successor.

“Unfair”? Actually, when it was adopted in 1997, it was never meant to include developing nations like China, India and Brazil. That’s what this next round is for, the round Kent is saying he won’t participate in.

“Certainly not effective”? Actually, the Protocol had met its reductions goals twice over by the end of 2009 — three years before its 2012 expiry date. The deal was to cut emissions by 5.2 percent. It’s already cut them by 11.5 percent. And that’s notwithstanding the United States, which didn’t even sign the Protocol, and Canada, which simply flouts it.

Let’s put this into perspective. If Canada withdraws, it will be the only signatory in the world to have done so. This is an international agreement that Canada not only signed, but also passed through Parliament twice. Withdrawing is a powerful symbol to the world that Canada wants to be part of the problem of the high-carbon world rather than part of the solution.

Not that its record was grand to begin with. Of all the countries that signed Kyoto, Canada is doing among the worst in meeting its legally binding goals. We were supposed to be six percent below our emissions of 1990. Instead, we are 17 percent above. Harper, like prime ministers before him, has done little or nothing to bring emissions under control and a great deal to increase them.

So it’s not as if Canada were pulling its weight here anyway. Formally withdrawing from the Protocol is an aggressive act. We are a middle nation that has been obstructionist behind the scenes in the yearly Kyoto negotiations since Harper took office. Now, with the withdrawal declaration, Canada’s backroom obstructionism takes centre stage. We’re still a middle power, but now we’re even more marginal.

This is Harper trying to buy votes with a sector of Canadians that has declared war on Kyoto and on the science of climate change. It’s a cynical move from a national leader who cares more about those votes than he does about being taken seriously as an international leader.

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