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Is Canada’s Shift on Climate Change Part of a Larger Trend?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Yesterday’s announcement by the Canadian government—that it may join a US-led coalition focused on voluntary emissions cuts—could be part of a global shift away from Kyoto’s binding targets.

CanadaIn a somewhat surprising development, Canada, a long-time supporter of the Kyoto Protocol, announced yesterday that it may want to join the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate (AP6), a six-nation coalition focusing on voluntary emissions-reductions steps and technology transfers. Many environmentalists oppose AP6 out of a fear that it may undermine political support for the legally binding Kyoto treaty.

The partnership, launched in mid-2005, is an agreement among six countries—Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and the United States—to develop and share greenhouse gas reduction technology to combat climate change. According to the AP6 web site, the six partner countries “represent about half of the world's economy, population and energy use, and they produce about 65 percent of the world’s coal, 48 percent of the world’s steel, 37 percent of world’s aluminum, and 61 percent of the world’s cement.” The countries also account for half the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Asia-Pacific Partnership is voluntary and technology-based, and lets each country set its own goals for greenhouse gas emission reductions, rather than legally binding them to a greenhouse gas reduction target. The group sees itself as “a voluntary, non-legally binding framework for international cooperation to facilitate the development, diffusion, deployment, and transfer of existing, emerging and longer term cost-effective, cleaner, more efficient technologies and practices.”

Green activists fear that AP6—officially a complementary approach to Kyoto—could be converted into an opposing bloc.

What does that mean in practice? In early 2006, the AP6 established task forces focused on eight major sources of emissions: fossil energy task force; a renewable energy and distributed generation task force; a power generation and transmission task force; a steel task force; an aluminum task force; a cement task force; a coal mining task force; and a buildings and appliances task force.

Environmental groups don’t care much for the Asia-Pacific Partnership, because they view it as a rival to Kyoto. As Philip Clapp, President of the National Environmental Trust told the BBC, "What is different and what is disturbing about this initiative is the attempt to organize a bloc of developing countries, including China and India, around what's officially a complementary approach but which could be converted into an opposing bloc.” Recent events support this reading.

Under previous Canadian governments, such as the Chrétien government that ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 2002, Canada’s focus was squarely internationalist. As then Prime-Minister Chrétien explained after ratification, "Because we believe in international institutions, we believed that we could play a positive role. This is very important for future generations." But current Prime Minister Steven Harper is no friend of Kyoto, having once called it a “socialist scheme.” Since taking office, Harper’s anti-Kyoto rhetoric has softened, but the major focus of his efforts has been domestic, rather than international. Under a new Clean Air Act, Canada has moved to regulate greenhouse gas-emitting industries, allowing emission trading only domestically. They have pledged to prevent Canadian taxpayer dollars from being used to purchase greenhouse gas emission permits from outside the country. Shortly after her appointment in 2005, Rona Ambrose, former Minister of Environment explainedOn Kyoto, I will say that our government will not be shipping hot air credits overseas. Our focus is on a domestic solution."

It is too early to see the real significance of Canada’s request to join the AP6. For the conservative Harper Administration, it is simply a logical next step in the “Made In Canada” approach to climate policy. Between membership in the AP6 and their new Clean Air Act initiatives, Canada can still trumpet its strong commitment to greenhouse gas emission reductions, while taking a step away from the hard-target focus of Kyoto.

The key question that remains is whether Canada is a bellwether for other countries, as some Canadians like to see themselves, and is likely to lead more of the anti-Kyoto flock into the AP6 pasture. After all, if a country like Canada, which prides itself on internationalism, “soft power,” and a somewhat anti-American policy stance can join a U.S.-sponsored rival to the Kyoto Protocol, who can’t?

Kenneth P. Green is a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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