Register Tuesday | June 18 | 2019

Playing the Climes

Can Canada push global climate change talks in the right direction in Montreal?

The United Nations Climate Change Conference—a summit expected to determine the fate of the Kyoto Accord, if not the direction of the global environmental movement—descends upon Montreal’s Palais des Congrès on November 28. Picture a two-week-long debate amongst thousands of politicians, lobbyists, environmentalists and journalists from around the world—a political convention of sorts, dedicated entirely to pollution reduction. Leaders and delegates will take to the podium in the main hall to make sweeping calls for cleaner air before scurrying off to the political green-thumb-wars taking place away from prying eyes in small meeting rooms. What ends up happening in those back rooms could have serious implications for government policymakers across the planet.

This year’s meeting comes at a crucial time in the development of a global strategy to cut back on greenhouse gases. Montreal could be the birthplace of a new agreement to try to cool down our slowly simmering planet, or it could end up the place of death of an ambitious and divisive plan to temper Earth’s heaviest polluters. Ultimately, the success of these meetings may have a lot to do with Canada’s skills at the bargaining table.

The Montreal conference can trace its roots back to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It was then that world leaders first acknowledged in writing that climate change had become a serious problem. They signed a document called the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC or FCCC), which expressed general concerns about global warming without actually pledging any specific actions to attempt to stop it. The scientific case had already been well-established with respect to our warming ocean waters, thinning arctic ice floes and retreating glaciers—but at the time the data was still being greeted with skepticism.

In the years that followed, environmentalism and the science supporting it achieved mainstream acceptance. More importantly, politicians started showing a willingness to take action. By 1997, most of the world’s countries were determined to take drastic measures to attempt to reduce airborne culprits like carbon dioxide. They convened in Japan and signed an addendum to the earlier Rio de Janeiro agreement. Known as the Kyoto Protocol, it commits countries to reducing their “overall emissions of [greenhouse] gases by at least 5 percent below 1990 levels” by the end of 2012. In Canada’s case, 6 percent reduction means slashing emissions by a whopping 270 megatons—that’s equivalent to the annual emissions of around 60 million cars (there are only about 17 million cars on the road in Canada to begin with).

There are unpleasant side-effects to reducing emissions and cleaning up the atmosphere, of course: the effort can cost a lot of money and can threaten big industries. But instead of pushing hard against the business community, Kyoto gathered support and credibility by using elements of the free market in its solutions. There are three main ways this works, all of which rely on emissions credits, a new kind of currency which acts as a proxy for actual emissions.

First, countries can buy and sell those credits to meet their commitments. For example, Russia is expected to come in well under its emissions target because of poor economic growth over the last decade. That means it could actually profit off Kyoto by selling its extra allowance of megatons of unused emissions to the highest bidder. The other two mechanisms extend the so-called “carbon market” to international development projects. Countries can, for example, snap up precious credits by investing in projects that help bring low-emission technologies to developing countries.

In theory, these mechanisms are not only supposed to be a way of engaging industries in the unpopular businesses of cleaning up the carbon, they’re also meant to help that cleanup happen at the lowest possible price. Here’s the logic: the cost of reducing emissions varies according to local industry and geography. For some companies in some countries it will be relatively simple and affordable; for others, bloody expensive. The latter can buy credits from the former to subsidize improvements and, ideally, to create an incentive for others to improve as well.

But the emission credit incentives could be less than enticing if these carbon markets have a short expiry date. “If they’re seen as a sort of five-year flash in the pan—after which they’re going to completely change or just stop—there’s going to be a lot less buy-in to that,” argues Jeff Fiedler of the US Natural Resources Defense Council. Why should anyone invest in a market expected to collapse? Fiedler says the uncertainty can be avoided by making decisions now about what should happen after Kyoto. And the credit market isn’t the only thing hinging on the shape of a future agreement; the issue is crucial for the whole climate change enterprise. This is why next week’s talks are so important—if the development of a foundation for Kyoto II isn’t begun, the current deal could end up being remembered as little more than a well-intentioned failure.

So what will a post-Kyoto agreement look like? No one knows for sure. It could bear striking resemblance to its parent, relying on fixed targets and commitments, specific timelines and market-based mechanisms. Or it could break ranks with the family and forge its own path, swapping strict commitments for non-binding pledges and establishing localized targets according to economic growth or a particular industrial sector. Fiedler wants to see more of the same: “We have to have a track coming out of Montreal that looks to continue the current Kyoto architecture.”

But Chris Green, an economics professor at McGill University, thinks a drastic change is long overdue and adds that Kyoto’s short-sightedness will cripple any future agreement. Since Kyoto is set up to encourage low-cost solutions, he argues, when the sequel rolls around, the cheap options will already have been used up. “It would become so costly to reduce emissions that no government attempting to do so would survive beyond the next election,” he says. Green’s solution is to scrap Kyoto and replace its time-sensitive targets with long-term investments in new technologies. It might not be as sexy or politically savvy as short-term cuts but the resulting changes could be more sustainable.

Another consideration is who will sign the next agreement. Developing countries will be the primary targets for commitments, as they have no obligations under the current deal. Until now, countries such as China have been “hesitant to take on the kinds of targets that we’ve taken on,” says John Bennett, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, “and that’s reasonable for equity reasons because the problems we’re facing now weren’t caused by China. They were caused by the West over the last 200 years, so there’s some catching up there.”

But the game of catch-up cannot go on forever. China is already the world’s second biggest polluter (after the US), and its economy is exploding. Countries like Mexico, India and Brazil are also expanding, and emissions and expansion traditionally go hand-in-hand. But the situation is far from bleak: “In China, they have actually included sustainable development in their latest economic plan,” notes Bennett. “They have created, and will put in place shortly, better fuel efficiency standards for cars than in North America.” On top of that, the Chinese government has promised to increase its use of renewable energy. The challenge of Kyoto II will be to encourage this brand of development without slapping on any fixed quotas (China would refuse to sign any agreement that did). “It might be a different kind of target,” suggests Daniel Bodansky, an environmental law professor at the University of Georgia, “like a growth target that allows emissions to grow. It could be a target indexed to economic growth.”

But some players will stay off the field at the slightest hint of unevenness. The US says it has steered clear of Kyoto because it gives developing countries an unfair advantage. It also feels that meeting the targets would be unrealistic without damaging the US economy. Unfortunately, the US is a key player in the game of emissions reductions. As the world’s top polluter, inaction on the part of the Unites States could jeopardize the effectiveness of steps taken by other countries, no matter how comprehensive.

So what’s the key to open the American deadlock? One option would be to construct a Kyoto II that would appease the US. Bennett thinks that would kill Kyoto: “If the Americans sign anything coming out of this meeting,” he says with a slight chuckle, “it means that it’s not going to be worth anything.”

Earlier this month, Bennett teamed up with a number of American environmental groups to encourage Paul Martin to take the lead at the upcoming conference. They want Canada to use its credibility on the international stage to unite the disparate views on climate change, and with his recent history of standing up to American bullying, Paul Martin might be just the man for the job. As the host country, Canada has an opportunity to guide the agenda and influence the outcome more than anyone. The environmentalists’ advice to the Prime Minister: forget about the US.

“We think it’s far better for the Canadian government and the international community to distance themselves from the Americans,” Bennett explains, “to go forward with a program that will actually lead to a further agreement that goes beyond Kyoto, and wait for US policy to evolve and catch up.” Bennett is optimistic that the evolution has already begun, if only at the state and municipal level. More than twenty states have introduced environmental laws, from renewable energy quotas to emissions trading, and over 180 cities have pledged to meet the Kyoto targets in spite of the federal position. “Americans are taking action,” he says.

Fiedler, whose group travelled north to help lobby Martin, echoes Bennett’s optimism. He describes positive developments in the US government, such as a recent Senate resolution asking Congress to develop a national emissions system similar to Kyoto. “What that means is that once the US does get serious, the current Kyoto architecture is exactly the system we like—clear rules, market-based mechanisms, everyone playing under the same structure.”

But until that happens the US will probably continue to trash-talk the deal from the sidelines. It’s unclear what effect that attitude might have on other countries’ positions. Bodansky says it may be detrimental. “I think it’s going to be hard to get a process started that will really be very robust because the US won’t be willing to go along at this meeting.”

It may not be robust but hopefully it won’t be completely flaccid, either. The amount of progress made may depend on Canada’s pushiness. Bennett is satisfied that Environment Minister Stéphane Dion has the right qualities to keep the talks moving. “We’re pretty confident that they will not try to kiss-ass the Americans so badly that they’ll screw up the future. The Prime Minister clearly has shown recently that he’s prepared to stand up to the Americans on softwood lumber, and he indicated to us that this was just as important, maybe more.”

As important as this conference is, it’s still just one strand of a very thick rope. Changing national behaviour is difficult, especially when economies are at stake. But the players seem committed to taking a few hits for the team. Now it’s time to watch the spectacle and prepare for our first big challenge as observers: sifting the results from the political games.

Simon Tudiver is a Montreal writer. He likes to pretend his cloth grocery bags will deliver him from a culture of excess.