Industrial Pollution

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From its ratification in 2002 to Canada’s eventual withdrawal from the agreement in 2011, the Kyoto Protocol has caused many debates, disagreements and discussion for the country and its citizens. In December, Canada is expected to sign on to a new climate agreement at COP21 in Paris. Is there anything to learn from Canada’s tumultuous journey with the Kyoto Protocol?

What is the Kyoto Protocol?

The Kyoto Protocol was the first binding international climate treaty and was adopted in 1997. It stemmed from the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to address worldwide climate issues through the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions. UNFCCC parties signed the agreement in 1997 at COP3 in Kyoto, but in order for the Protocol to come into force it needed at least 55 “Annex 1” countries representing 55 percent of all Annex 1 emissions to ratify the treaty. This eventually occurred in February 2005, after Russia ratified the agreement in 2004.


Canada and Kyoto Protocol

Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, but developments were not made to ratify the agreement until 2002. Stephen Hill, associate professor of Environmental and Resources Studies at Trent University says that during a Liberal caucus meeting in the summer of 2002, two things occurred that led to the progression of Kyoto’s ratification. The first was Jean Chrétien’s announcement that he would only be Prime Minister for another 18 months. The second was a petition led by Liberal MP John Godfrey for the support of Canada ratifying the Kyoto Protocol regardless of the costs, which was signed by 97 Liberal MPs.

When the United States, under President George W. Bush, pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2001, most observers were waiting for Canada to follow suit and employ a political exit strategy. However, through the push of the EU to reach the 55 percent threshold without the United States, it was officially ratified in December 2002 under Chrétien’s Liberal government. 

“Chretien’s September 2002 announcement to ratify Kyoto was a surprise to many people,” Hill said. “You had western oil producers, provinces and industries putting together a major campaign to fight the Kyoto protocol and looking for alternative actions.” However, Godfrey’s petition, Hill continues, outlined that a majority of the Liberal MPs would vote for the Kyoto Protocol regardless of the cost and, in so doing, set the political context for the ratification of the treaty that summer.

Political battles ensued industry associations like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Canadian Council of Chief Executives launching advertising and public relation campaigns against Kyoto. Federal government analyses showed that were different policies that could help Canada meet the six percent emissions reductions below 1990 levels target set out in the Kyoto Protocol, and estimated that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would be reduced by 0.4 percent in between 2002 and 2010. In other words, rather than growing by 18 percent between 2002 and 2010, the economy would grow by around 17.6 percent. No explicit price was imposed on. However these plans were expected to cost around $50/tonne CO2e(CAD).

Amidst the political debates surrounding the Kyoto Protocol, Suncor Energy Inc. and other energy companies, sat on their hands throughout the 2002 announcement of the ratification of the treaty.

Just before the December 2002 ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, Herb Dhaliwal, the Minister of Natural Resources at the time, negotiated a deal with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers that the industry would not pay more than $15/tonne(CAD) for emissions reductions in their industry. This was a great deal, Hill said, as the oil and gas industries were being given an intensity target at 15 percent below their projected business-as-usual levels opposed to an absolute reduction target.

Amidst the political debates surrounding the Kyoto Protocol, Suncor Energy Inc. and other energy companies, sat on their hands throughout the fall 2002 political debates surrounding ratification of the treaty. In January of 2003, during a Suncor conference call with their institutional investors the question was raised “How will Canada’s ratification of Kyoto affect Suncor?” their answer was that it was “immaterial” as they estimated the internal costs of the Kyoto Protocol to be 20 to 27 cents a barrel. With the large majority of Canadian carbon emissions from the oil sands, after Suncor’s dismissal, Hill says that everyone should have been fully aware that Canada had no intention of meeting the Kyoto Protocol.

In 2004, the new Liberal minority government led by Paul Martin, planned to honour the Kyoto Protocol targets through Project Green. The plan consisted of buying all sorts of emissions reductions costing an estimated $10 billion. Louise Comeau and other environmental leaders with the help of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund helped devise Project Green. Although not necessarily a bad plan, Hill believes it was an expensive way to meet the Kyoto targets. The plan never went into fruition as Stephen Harper and a minority Conservative government were elected in 2006.

Stephen Harper had publicly opposed the Kyoto Protocol since it’s development — even calling it a ‘socialist scheme’ — and once elected into office, he slowed or cancelled actions to meet the Kyoto Protocol targets including Project Green.

With many years of climate inaction from the federal government, Canada officially withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in December 2011. 

By 2007, Conservative Environment Minister John Baird announced a new emissions  target of reducing the 2007 levels of carbon emissions by 150 million tonnes by 2020. This target was heavily criticized as being significantly weaker than the targets set out in the Kyoto Protocol and not requiring industry sectors to cap their emissions.

With many years of climate inaction from the federal government, Canada officially withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in December 2011. Announced by then-Environment Minister Peter Kent, he cited that the government would save $14 billion in penalties by pulling out of the agreement. "Kyoto for Canada is in the past,” said Kent. “As such, we are invoking our legal right to formally withdraw."

Now in the lead-up to COP21, former Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced in May, that Canada would set a carbon emissions reduction target of 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. According to, even if this target is achieved it is still an inadequate from Canada in limiting global temperature change to 2°C. Hill adds that without a plan in place to implement it, the new emissions target reduction means nothing.

The irony, said Hill, is that provincial governments have stepped up in emissions reductions in the absence of federal leadership. This include, for example, the Ontario government through its closures of coal plants and the BC government through its implementation of carbon tax.


Lessons from Kyoto

Canada is in dire need to rebuild our previous international credibility. “We went from being an international leader in climate science in the time of Jim Bruce and Kenneth Hare who led the world in climate science and climate politics, to being a laggard and a dinosaur,” said Hill.

With Canada’s weak reputation in climate discussions, it comes to no surprise that few people believe that we will meet the climate reductions targets that will be set out at COP21. 

For multiple years in a row, Climate Action Network has awarded Canada with various Fossil awards, including “Fossil of the day,” “Fossil of the Year” and “Lifetime Achievement Fossil Award,” for it’s poor contribution in previous UN Climate Summits.

With Canada’s weak reputation in climate discussions, it comes to no surprise that few people believe that we will meet the climate reductions targets that will be set out at COP21.  However, as a northern nation that is particularly vulnerable to climate change, the international climate agreement is in our best interests, we should want emissions reductions. Canada cannot solve the climate problem without the help of every other country.

“Our citizens have to hold our federal government accountable and do everything they can, so when they sign this [COP21] agreement, we know that we can expect them to implement it. We can also expect ourselves to agree to the policies that will be needed to implement the agreement and that means through carbon pricing, incentives for renewable energy and policy change,” said Hill.

Hill provides two lessons that Canada can take from the Kyoto Protocol when drafting a climate agreement for COP21.

1. Don’t be deluded into thinking that an international agreement will save the climate.

The tyranny of international meetings on climate change can be a distraction from the need to implement emissions reductions. International climate meetings are important and crucial, but they can distract us from the important work of reducing emissions. Action on climate change comes from every corner of the planet and occurs for many different reasons. We can use Ontario as an example. The closure of coal plants was originally driven by the air pollution benefits, but once they were finally phased out, Ontario was happy to lay claim about the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions. China and its various issues with air pollution provide a similar driver for the country to get away from coal and that will surely have significant GHG emissions benefits.

2. Continue to build a robust public understanding of the overall climate issues.

It is imperative that the government invests in public engagement about climate change. This means ensuring Canadians understand the stock and flow of GHG emissions in our atmosphere and the emissions reductions targets we need to reach to eventually achieve a 0°C change in global temperature.  To get there, we need to make many changes and the faster we get to 0°C the lower the ultimate cost.  Currently GHG emissions in Canada are growing, requiring larger reductions to reach our emission reductions goals.

Hill’s new mantra is that every jurisdiction should spend $1/tonne/year in engaging the public to talk about what climate change means. For the federal government, he says that would this would mean an $800 million budget on climate conversations and engagement, and for provincial government it will cost around $200 million dollars. 

“One dollar per tonne is nothing in comparison to the future costs of climate change,” says Hill. “But we need to have those conversations, and we need to recognize that this engagement requires lots of resources.”

In A\J's Climate Repair issue published in October 2005, Stephen Hill analyzed the Kyoto Protocol and gave recommendations for communities to take leadership and cut their emissions in his article Local Heroics. Read it here

Eunize Lao is the Editorial Intern and a third-year Environment and Business student at the University of Waterloo. 

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