Kyoto: ‘The silliest of high-minded gestures’

| April 5, 2013 | 0 Comments

The driving force for conferences such as COP18, held in Doha, is the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was set up to document the human fingerprint of climate change.

December 15, 2012 marked the end of what has been a less-than-stellar chapter in Canadian diplomatic history. No, I am not referring to the fact that Canada has pulled out of one of the silliest of the many high-minded gestures that increasingly characterize United Nations diplomacy. Rather, I am taking some satisfaction in Canada’s decision to pull out of the Kyoto Climate Change Protocol.
As a former Canadian negotiator of international trade agreements, I could always take pride in Canada’s long history of honouring its international obligations. Canada may, at times, have been a little too eager to join international organizations and regimes, but there was never any doubt that we did this with a seriousness of purpose and a full commitment to any treaty’s goals and objectives.

A plenary session in the main hall of the Kyoto International Conference Centre in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997.

This began to change in the 1990s as UN moral grandstanding reached new heights, from such laudable but futile goals as banning child soldiers to eliminating poverty by the turn of the century, and none more so than in the area of environmental protection and climate change.
Earlier generations of Canadian diplomats would have found UN efforts to govern climate a puzzling development. The idea that the world’s governments could control climate had been born a decade earlier as activists contemplated the vagaries of the globe’s ever-changing climate. Untutored in the finer points of physics and geology and unmoved by the fact that climate change still lacks a convincing explanatory theory due to its irreducible complexity, activists had convinced themselves that human activity was fundamentally changing global climate for the worse and that concerted action was needed to save the planet.
This novel idea proved immensely appealing to the progressive mindset. It fit in well with its attitude toward nature and the role of humans in corrupting it. From this perspective, the world’s climate has been stable for centuries until humans began to interfere with it, particularly as a result of rising emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. To people of this disposition, a trace gas in the atmosphere serves as the planet’s thermostat, threatening to raise global temperatures to unprecedented levels unless steps are taken to control emissions. The lack of real-world evidence to substantiate this looming threat is irrelevant; computer programs have “proven” the thesis. All the world’s scientists say so, at least those who pay little heed to that familiar programming adage: garbage in, garbage out.
To the world’s progressives, this is an idea whose time has come: an organizing principle for addressing all that threatens the environment — too many people, their modern technology and their concern with economic growth and rising incomes. Like Thomas Malthus two centuries earlier, they are convinced that the Earth’s carrying capacity has long been passed and that further growth is unsustainable. Now is the time to act. Major cuts in carbon-based energy usage, the main source of carbon emissions, have thus become the vehicle for putting the world on a more sustainable ecological path, at least from their perspective.
At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, world leaders duly adopted the UN Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), none more enthusiastically than Canada’s Brian Mulroney. Despite progressives’ general reservations about many of Mr. Mulroney’s policy preferences, they continue to hold him in high esteem for his leadership at the 1988 Second World Climate Conference in Toronto and at the Rio Summit in 1992.
On its face, the UNFCCC does little damage to Canadian interests or Canada’s reputation for taking its treaty obligations seriously. It is, after all, little more than a framework for future action. It contains, however, the seeds for continued mischief. It calls for annual Conferences of the Parties (COPs), a process that began in 1995 in Berlin and has continued every year since, including last December’s 18th COP in Qatar.
The driving force for these conferences is the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), set up in 1988 jointly by the UN’s Environmental Program and the World Meteorological Organization following the Toronto conference. It has a mandate to summarize the science of human influence on global climate change. This last point is critical. It was not set up to summarize the science of climate change, but to document the human fingerprint. From the beginning, its mandate was more political than scientific, although it was sold to the public as an authoritative scientific body, counting on a scientifically illiterate media and a public not appreciating that in science, authority comes from the evidence available to substantiate a theory, not from official pronouncements.
The IPCC’s political nature became clear with its first report in 1990. In addition to a generally balanced summary of the scientific literature, it was crowned with a contentious summary for policymakers (SPM) prepared by government officials, many of them with little or no scientific background, but with a keen eye for advancing their agenda. Three subsequent reports, each with its own SPM, have carried the agenda to increasing heights, as traces of dissenting science have been scrubbed to make room for the global salvationism that now animates much of the UN’s work. Its fifth report is due in 2014, but leaked drafts have already made clear that it will carry alarmism to new heights, ignoring the inconvenient fact that global temperatures have failed to rise for 16 years despite steady growth in the world’s emissions of carbon dioxide.
Despite its limitations, the alarmist community chose global temperature as its signature metric. Temperature is a spatially and temporally bound phenomenon. Calculating an average for thousands of observations may yield an interesting metric, but one that has no physical meaning. Even then, warmists have to face the inconvenient fact that for the globe’s 4.5 billion years of geological history, we only have an imperfect and scandal-marred instrumental record going back 150 years and a better satellite record going back 33 years. The former, based on dodgy, highly manipulated data, shows periods of both increasing and decreasing temperature and an overall rise of about 0.7°C over that period, within a range of observed temperatures of nearly 150°C. Ottawa experiences a temperature range of approximately 77°C. The satellite record shows frequent day-to-day and month-to-month changes, but no statistically significant change since 1979.
Any signs of warming, of course, wherever they appear on the globe, are not evidence of anthropogenic warming, only of nature’s ever-changing patterns. Despite billions of dollars spent on finding a human signature in climate change, no physical evidence has yet to be isolated. The much-sought-after signature is only found in highly controversial models.
Similar to other UN-sponsored regimes such as the UN Conference on Trade and Development, COPs have become the focal point for constant pressure by the world’s never-satisfied armies of progressives, including its very vocal environmental brigades. Every year in the late fall, environmentalists and officials gather in their thousands at some comfortable venue — Bangkok, Bali, and Durban, for example — to emote about the deteriorating state of the planet and the need for action. Between gatherings, officials, and the inevitable horde of NGOs, meet in preparatory meetings to set the stage for the main climate fest at the end of the year when, hopefully, governments will agree to advance the agenda a little farther.
At Kyoto, Japan, in 1997, the parties agreed to a protocol to the UNFCCC establishing a regime for placing limits on carbon emissions by industrialized countries to be achieved by such means as carbon taxes, emission quotas and other techniques. In the world of UN climate science, economic reality is but a minor inconvenience, not to be taken too seriously. Development, however, is a serious matter. Emission reductions were a burden to be taken on by industrialized countries; developing countries — more than three-quarters of the parties to the UNFCCC — would not need to take action, but if they did, they could sell emission credits to industrialized countries that were finding it difficult to meet their own targets. The UN had found a new technique for achieving one of its main goals — redistributing wealth from the industrialized North to the developing South, one endorsed enthusiastically by virtually all governments. To some, it had become unclear whether the exercise was about redistributing wealth or saving the planet.
The U.S. delegation, led by vice-president Al Gore, was among those pushing hardest for a climate regime, but when it became clear that the protocol would not distribute the burden among all parties, the U.S. Senate, by a vote of 95 to 0, indicated it would never ratify such an unbalanced treaty. This should have been a warning to Canadian officials. Nevertheless, Canada was among the first to sign the protocol in 1998.
It took eight years for enough parties to ratify the protocol and bring it into effect, the U.S. and Australia conspicuous by their absence, but Canada prominent among the ratifiers. Once the EU had dangled enough carrots in front of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, he overcame his initial skepticism and accepted the protocol in 2005, bringing it into force.
Canada’s ratification at the end of 2002 had raised considerable eyebrows in the provinces. Climate and energy policy fall under provincial jurisdiction, and in preparation for Kyoto the provinces had made it clear that Canada was in no position to accept reductions in emissions. In the intervening years, this lack of readiness had become ever more painfully evident. Canada is a large, cold country with an energy-intensive economy. No reliable substitutes for fossil fuels exist. Emissions had grown even further, and the idea that Canada could reduce them to six percent below the 1990 baseline by 2012, the target Canada had accepted, had become patently ridiculous. No plans existed even to make a beginning, let alone reach the target. Then-prime minister Jean Chrétien, however, was determined to make a legacy statement before his departure, and ratifying Kyoto qualified.
When Canada deposited its instrument of ratification with the UN secretary general, few pointed to the hollowness of the gesture. Canada had no plans to meet its target; for Canada, ratification was symbolic at best, the solemnity of treaty obligations of little moment to Mr. Chrétien and his ministers.
When Stephen Harper took office in 2006, Canada’s plans had moved no farther than the rhetorical flourishes of Liberal ministers. Stéphane Dion, Mr. Chrétien’s last environment minister and Paul Martin’s successor as Liberal leader in 2007, campaigned on the need for a carbon tax in the 2008 election and was soundly defeated. For Mr. Harper, the path was clear. Canada would take such steps as it could to reduce carbon emissions on a sound and economically sustainable basis, but getting out of Kyoto became a critical goal, not least because Mr. Harper wanted to restore the integrity of Canada’s treaty obligations.
At the Durban COP in 2011, Environment Minister Peter Kent announced that Canada would not participate in any extension of Kyoto. He was not alone. Japan and Russia similarly announced their intentions to withdraw. Brave talk continued at Durban, and a year later in Qatar, about the need to negotiate a viable replacement for Kyoto. All that could be managed at Qatar was agreement to extend the Kyoto regime for five years, without any new commitments, while discussions continued on a successor agreement. At the UN, nothing ever dies, but veterans recognize when a UN regime’s useful life is over. The future points to lots of pious talk but little concrete action. And Canada is no longer bound by any commitments on emission reductions.
Was anything achieved by Kyoto? EU leaders can claim they managed to reduce EU emissions by 16 percent, double their target. Most of this resulted from the absorption and conversion of the dirty and inefficient legacy of Soviet energy policy in Eastern Europe. Shutting down coal plants in favour of gas also helped, as did moving energy-intensive production to developing countries. Wind and solar made a tiny contribution, providing Europe with one percent of its primary energy needs as the result of a massive investment in these wildly expensive and inefficient technologies. The EU’s carbon-trading scheme has cost consumers $285 billion, and carbon permits are now worth virtually nothing.
Globally, emissions rose by 50 percent above 1990 levels, as developing countries such as China, India, Indonesia and others ramped up their energy usage as their economies grew by as much as 10 percent per annum. Coal, the least efficient, but most available, was the fossil fuel of choice throughout the developing world.
As for Canada, by 2012, emissions had grown by 30 percent above 1990 levels, and the government has indicated that any future efforts will be determined by developments in Washington. Facing a skeptical, and even hostile Congress on climate change, U.S. President Barack Obama has taken a leaf out of the Chrétien playbook: much sterling rhetoric, but little useful policy. Welcome to climate change politics in 2013.

Michael Hart, a former Canadian trade policy official with DFAIT, holds the Simon Reisman chair in trade policy at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

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