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Kyoto: A small word that evokes many questions

By Walter Robinson
web posted September 9, 2002

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien's recent announcement in Johannesburg that he expects Parliament to give him the green light by Christmas to sign onto the Kyoto Protocol brings this whole five-year debacle full-circle. Yet so many questions about the Kyoto Protocol remain unanswered, or worse still, they've never been asked.

From the very start, Kyoto was the posterchild for 'policy on the fly.' Back in December 1997, Canada signed on to the Kyoto Protocol along with 160 other countries. Was this an election issue back in June 1997? No. Do you recall any public debate about this leading up to the December 1997 meeting in Kyoto, Japan? Bet the farm you didn't. Well surely then the newspapers must have some historic record of Canada's negotiating position going into that December meeting. Sorry, that's three strikes, you're out.

While the papers reveal no record of Canada's position, there were plenty of articles written by stakeholders (the environmental lobby, industry associations, provincial governments and taxpayer groups) asking for details on Canada's position. It appears that this position was decided amongst a few ministers and senior bureaucrats during the flight -- policy on the fly – across the Pacific Ocean to Japan.

Fast-forward to the present and the litany of unanswered and unposed questions grows. Polls state that 70 per cent of Canadians support the Kyoto Protocol. But how many Canadians can even rhyme off one condition of this Protocol? Probably zero to three percent at best.

In a nutshell, Canada has agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 6 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. This represents a reduction between of 30 per cent of projected 2012 levels. It is still unclear whether Canada will receive credit for its swaths of green space, known as "carbon sinks" and further, whether emissions trading (where we could purchase unused 'credits' from other countries) will be allowed.

Popular sentiment these days suggests if you oppose you are aiding and abetting industrial polluters, greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, the melting of the polar ice caps, drought, famine, disease and the end of life as we know it. Just look at the summer we had … record heat, little rain, surely the end is nigh!

Uh, no. What we experienced this summer in Canada is called weather, not climate change, global warming or the apocalypse. And as for global warming and climate change, scientific evidence is far from conclusive. As Edmonton Journal columnist Lorne Gunter notes, ninety-five (95 per cent) percent of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere occurs naturally, from geothermal activity to CO2 from decomposing trees and other fauna.

As for the earth heating up like a fireball, a real disconnect exists between the data yielded from surface measurements (saying we're getting warmer) as opposed to weather satellites (which say we're not). And then there's the fact that the earth has been heating and cooling itself for thousands of years. In fact, the earth has been warmer than it is today on several occasions throughout the millennia.

Turning to the politics of Kyoto, still other questions arise. How can the federal government negotiate an international treaty on resource use when resources are a provincial jurisdiction? A good question indeed. Here is where federalism is put to the test and where one answers a question with another question. Why has the Prime Minister refused to meet with all premiers to discuss this important issue?

Will Canada's adherence to the Kyoto protocol make a difference? This is debatable. Canada only produces 2 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases while nations like the United States (25 per cent) and Australia refuse to sign on.

So if the U.S. and Australia aren't on board with the Kyoto Protocol, won't this put Canada at an economic disadvantage? Unquestionably yes, and it is taxpayers and consumers who will ultimately pay the freight.
To pay this freight, various levels of governments may adopt a host of measures. These run the gauntlet from dedicated carbon levies, increases in taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel to special sales taxes on minivans and SUVs to tolls on local roads and increased downtown parking rates.

Industry will also be hard hit by Kyoto. And the costs of compliance – in other words, lowering greenhouse gas emissions – will ultimately result in job losses and pass-throughs in the form of higher prices for manufactured goods and increased utility bills.

The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters association estimates impact costs to run upwards of $40 billion over a decade with a potential loss of some 450,000 jobs. Are Canadians willing to support Kyoto even if it means losing their own job? This question should be posed to the 70 per cent of Canadians that allegedly support Kyoto.

So far, Kyoto's supporters and the media in large part have framed the national debate as an oil-rich Alberta vs. the rest of Canada issue. This is unfairly simplistic. Kyoto will dramatically impact Ontario's manufacturing base and Ontarians reliance on coal-fired electricity. Moreover, this could cripple future energy development plans in Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and British Columbia and Newfoundland.

This is where Kyoto moves from being an environmental issue to a truly national issue. Adopting a policy framework that will inflict economic hardship on Alberta and Ontario is foolhardy at best, potentially disastrous, at its worst.

These two 'have' fiscally carry the rest of the country by transferring a significant chunk of their collective economic output through tax revenues to every other province and territory by way of equalization payments. For other provinces, like Manitoba to cheer Kyoto forward, is akin to biting – no, make that severing – the hand that feeds.

To make matters worse, Ottawa still can't answer the following fundamental questions. Where is the Kyoto implementation plan? Why has it eschewed public debate for almost half a decade? Why haven't the Chretien Liberals put this issue directly to the people in two successive federal election campaigns?

How much will taxpayers fork over to buy unused emissions credits from other countries? What ongoing measures will the government take to refine and improve its approach to climate change science? And why does the Prime Minister refuse to confront his provincial counterparts face to face on this crucial national issue?

In a larger sense, the present debate is hallmark of the last decade of national policy implementation: act on incomplete data and evidence, ignore the concerns of the provinces and make Canadian taxpayers bear the brunt of such polices, now and in the future.

We deserve better … not to mention a beautiful Japanese city whose name should not be associated with a cobbled together national and multilateral approach to address climate change.

Walter Robinson is the Federal Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • We can do better than Kyoto by Jason Hayes (September 2, 2002)
    Jason Hayes argues that it would be foolish for the Canadian government to ratify the Kyoto Accord despite what the Pembina Institute says

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