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Ratifying the Kyoto Accord

The confusing controversy over whether Canada should ratify the Kyoto Accord—and under what conditions—constitutes another of those instances where there is no obvious right thing to do, and everyone yapping about it is incompetent, ignorant, or hiding their agenda. When this happens, the general public usually ends up as the victim: they’re presented with an onslaught of self-servicing opinion and half-cooked information. What’s unusual here is that the lead agency, in this case the Government of Canada, is behaving better than almost anyone else involved, including the United Nations.

Canada has already signed the Kyoto Accord. What it is now doing is ratifying it. The Kyoto Accord is a 1997 agreement that came out of the 1991 Kyoto Conference on Global Warming, and resulted in a draft "protocol" in 1992 that 166 countries signed. The protocol posited a global climate crisis caused by human-produced carbon dioxide, with the primary culprits automotive exhaust and other fossil fuel consumption. The protocols have little to say about nitrates or ozone depletion, which are equally serious environmental problems. What the protocol did do was admit that CO2 production constituted an environmental crisis, and then offered some general principles concerning what ought to be done to reduce emissions.

The Kyoto Accord, which details the protocols and sets national targets for reduction of CO2 emissions has been signed by 84 countries, (including Canada and Australia, neither of which has ratified it) and ratified by 95. To sign it is to agree to its general goals, to ratify it is to agree to comply with specific targets for your particular country. Some countries have done both, so the lists overlap, causing more confusion. Among the things that aren’t clear is whether any of the signees and ratifiers are doing anything substantial to cut CO2 emissions. Most of the member countries in the European Union have signed and ratified the Accord, but few experts believe they’ll meet the reductions in CO2 they’ve agreed to, or even make a serious attempt. At least the Canadian government has taken it seriously enough to question whether ratification is in our best interests.

The objections to ratification lodged by parts of the business community—mainly large energy-producing multinational corporations—and by Canada’s energy-producing provinces—B.C. and (more loudly) Alberta—are mostly fatuous. These days, corporations whine about governments doing anything, particularly signing treaties with one another that don’t give the corporations fiscal rights that suckers like you and I don’t enjoy. Meanwhile, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein’s threat to separate if Canada ratifies isn’t very serious. Alberta would last about three hours as an independent country, particularly once they realize that after hour six they’ll be annexed by the U.S. and put under the administrative control of the Governors of Idaho and Wyoming.

Meanwhile, the much noised-about "costs to consumers" that ratifying Kyoto will incur is something of a red herring. Compliance will cost money and a few industrial jobs, but if we keep stressing the atmosphere with more and more carbon dioxide, it will cost a hell of a lot more, as the farmers of Northern Alberta discovered this past summer. And anyhow, there have been costs associated with fighting terrorism, and nearly everyone has gladly paid them. You want real terror? When the noon temperatures in Yellowknife reach 40 degrees centigrade, B.C.’s lower mainland is an inland sea, or the thirty-foot seawall around New York City made necessary by melted polar icecaps begins to crack, we’ll all have a new understanding of terror.

All this being true, there is one argument against ratifying Kyoto that I do agree with, and that’s the argument that suggests that the Accord gives polluters in the underdeveloped parts of the world a competitive advantage.

Implicit in the Accord is the principle that everybody on the planet has some sort of God-given right to progress through the various stages of industrialization the West has, and that each national state has a right to what amounts to a pollution quota it can use up before it has to go straight. This is a recipe for global environmental suicide, given that three quarters of the countries on the planet, along with a similar percentage of the world’s population haven’t yet experienced the wonders of full industrialization. By the time the undeveloped nations have used up their quotas with clogged freeways, smog, polluted waterways and the usual assortment of sludge-spewing steel and chemical plants, the planet will look like the inside of an omelet an hour after the chef fainted from the cooking gas fumes.

Those who support Kyoto without reservation appear to believe that the West has a guilt debt to pay for past exploitation or for ignoring social conditions in the underdeveloped part of the world. But paying this debt off with rights-to-pollute is crazy, and not just because we’ll have to survive six times the pollution the West and the former Soviet Union has inflicted on the planet before our guilt is alleviated. Most of the pollution quotas will be sucked up by extranational agglomerates, who will remove virtually all serious manufacturing from Europe and North America to cash in on the cheap labour and the freedom from ecological responsibility the Accord is currently set up to hand out to any country with hot weather and a lot of slums. Those in Canada’s small business community who are howling about this are right, and the Accord needs to be adjusted before Canada signs.

Beyond that, there are reasons we should be wary of trusting the UN as an analyst of global problems and as an administrator to their redress. It is a factionalized organization at every level, and it hasn’t exactly been the honest broker it was meant to be. Outside of the Security Council, which is stacked to favour the West, it now tends to be controlled by political entrepreneurs from the nondeveloped parts of the world, and administered by Global Intellectuals, the professional conference-goers whose main goals appear to be ensuring that more conferences will be held so they can debate and settle on righteous generalities that no one does anything about. We should remind ourselves that the very short list of the UN’s recent achievements include the botched peacekeeping effort in Rwanda that dithered while the Hutu militias murdered 800,000 people, the Durban Conference on Racism, which turned into an anti-Israeli kangaroo court with a lot of charred pots accusing kettles of being sooty, and the ongoing schmozzle in the former Yugoslavia that didn’t prevent the destruction of Sarajevo, and ended with NATO bombing Serbia while the locals tried to disembowel their neighbours for using different alphabets or using different religious texts to regiment those who believe in god.

The UN’s poor record in general, and the specific—and very peculiar—geopolitics of Kyoto leaves countries like Canada without trustable alternatives. Do we go with the potentially planet-killing do-nothing environmental policies of the United States, or do we align ourselves with the kleptocratic ruling classes of the poor nations, who are, finally, angling for whatever competitive economic advantages they can get so they can keep stealing from their citizens while they sell off their countries’ futures for development funding from offshore extranational corporations?

Jean Chretien probably wants to go along with the Kyoto Accord because he sees a moral responsibility to do something to keep the planet inhabitable for future generations, and that shouldn’t make him the object of public cynicism. But he’s got to do it without causing serious damage to the internal economy, and that means accompanying compliance with tax breaks and other incentives that will provide specific and economically tangible bonuses for those who produce less CO2. It isn’t going to be enough to ask people politely to stop consuming. That’s like asking cows to stop farting, which is, as far as I can see, all that the U.S. is willing to do. For instance, to condemn Ontario’s coal-fired electric power-generating plants without a parallel program that encourages citizens and businesses to retrofit their buildings with local and small-scale solar and wind generating systems equipped with two-way meters isn’t going to work because it abrogates self-interest.

That’s what’s wrong with Kyoto: it defines self-interest globally, but not locally, and not with anywhere near enough enlightenment. To work, the Accord has to permit everyone to exercise enlightened self-interest on the scale of specific effects. In that respect, Ralph Klein and Ernie Eves are right, even if their self-interest is about as enlightened as that of the Saudi Sheiks.

1420 w. December 12, 2002

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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