Barely better than nothing
Michael Byers, Professor, UBC
December 13, 2005

Concessions needed to achieve a meagre compromise deprived the Montreal conference of all but the most modest results.

Climate change is so terrifying that even the smallest steps toward dealing with it must be welcomed. Last week’s conference in Montreal affirmed the modest obligations of the Kyoto Protocol while committing countries to discussions on a post-Kyoto regime. Yet actions speak louder than words and, on climate change, no country is more hypocritical than Canada.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has warned that climate change could be “so far-reaching in its impact and irreversible in its destructive power, that it alters radically human existence.” In the two centuries since industrialization, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 35 per cent. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trap heat that would otherwise radiate into space. As greenhouse-gas levels rise, the lower atmosphere heats up and the climate changes, sometimes in unexpected ways. The global average temperature has already increased by about 0.6 C. The 10 hottest years on record have fallen within the last 15 years. And since greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for decades, they have an ongoing, cumulative effect. In 2001, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — a multinational group of 2,500 scientists — predicted an additional increase during the 21st century of between 1.4 C and 5.8 C. Last year, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a comprehensive report produced by nearly 300 scientists, predicted that annual average temperatures in the north will increase by 3 C to 7 C. The most visible impact of climate change is the shrinking Arctic sea-ice, which is decreasing by more than 74,000 square kilometres — an area the size of New Brunswick — each year. Scientists are particularly concerned about “feedback loops.” One such loop involves the open water and bare ground exposed by melting snow and ice. These darker surfaces reflect 75 per cent less heat away from the Earth’s surface and thus contribute to further warming, which melts more ice and snow, which reflects less heat, and so on. A second feedback loop involves fresh water from melting Arctic and Greenland ice flowing south into the North Atlantic and disrupting the Gulf Stream, the warm ocean current that sweeps across from the Caribbean and moderates temperatures in northern Europe. Earlier this month, scientists reported that the Gulf Stream has recently slowed by 30 per cent. If this continues, winter temperatures in Ireland, Britain and Scandinavia will be dramatically reduced, at least for a few decades, while North America could become even hotter. A third feedback loop involves melting permafrost releasing huge quantities of methane and carbon dioxide as the plant material in the soil decomposes. Methane is 23 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. As methane and carbon dioxide from the permafrost reach the atmosphere, they cause further temperature rises, which in turn cause more melting and more methane and carbon dioxide release, and so on. Melting permafrost has already forced the government of Alaska to cut from 200 to 100 days the annual period during which oil and gas equipment is permitted to travel on the tundra. It’s difficult to overstate the gravity of the situation. The lives of billions of people will be deeply changed. Hurricanes and other extreme weather events are increasing in both frequency and scale, while sea levels are rising as glaciers melt and warming ocean water expands.

Moreover, since climate change is occurring quickly, it will soon outpace the ability of many species to adapt and evolve. The polar bear, which hunts on sea-ice, is probably destined for extinction. Unfortunately, the U.S. government is so deeply embedded in the oil, gas and coal industries that even the most rigorous scientific analyses cannot shake its commitment to fossil fuels. Four years ago, Vice-President Dick Cheney commented: “Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy.” The vice-president was wrong: Switching the U.S. car and truck fleet to currently available hybrid technology would eliminate the need for Middle Eastern oil. Since the United States accounts for 24 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, its refusal to deal with climate change constitutes a major problem. The Montreal conference was directed at achieving agreement on emissions reductions after 2012, which is when the Kyoto Protocol expires, and to bringing the United States on board. In the end, Washington agreed only to informal talks that, it insisted, must not “open to any discussion leading to new commitments.” And the concessions needed to achieve this meagre compromise deprived the conference of all but the most modest results. Multilateral negotiations on climate change are producing too little, too late. Fortunately, some significant unilateral initiatives are taking place. Germany has reduced its carbon dioxide emissions to 18.5 per cent below 1990 levels, mostly through conservation. Denmark has become a leader in alternative energy technologies, producing 20 per cent of its electricity from wind power, selling 90 per cent of its wind turbines abroad, and creating 20,000 new jobs.

Canada, by comparison, is the worst kind of laggard. Since 1990, our carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 24 per cent, despite the fact that the federal government, by ratifying Kyoto, committed to a six-per-cent reduction. The failure is the direct result of political inaction: a series of Liberal governments have refused to impose stringent fuel-efficiency requirements on new automobiles, or to waive the GST on hybrid cars. Nor has there been any significant investment in alternative energy technologies, notwithstanding the burgeoning federal surplus. Our federal government’s record is so bad that the chief executive officers of some of Canada’s leading corporations — Alcan, Bombardier, Falconbridge, Home Depot Canada, Power Corp. and Shell Canada — last month called for immediate measures to avoid the “severe consequences for human health and security and the environment” inherent in climate change. It’s time that Canada’s politicians took note. On this all-important issue, words are not enough. Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. His work on climate change is supported by ArcticNet, a federally funded consortium of scientists from 23 Canadian universities.