Canadian and U.S. negotiators must highlight developing swindle at this month’s U.N. Climate Change Conference

Blog, Climate, Tom Harris

Safeguarding our interests, not appeasing international climate zealots, must be Harper and Obama governments’ goals in Qatar

From November 26 to December 7, The State of Qatar hosts the 2012 UN Climate Change Conference. There will be two sessions:

  1. The 18th Conference of the Parties (COP18) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to which Canada and the United States are signatories and major financial contributors. Since the UNFCCC entered into force in 1995, the COPs to the UNFCCC have been meeting annually to assess progress in dealing with climate change. This is the 18th time they have met and so is called COP18. Decisions taken by the COP make up a detailed set of rules for implementation of the Convention.
  2. The 8th Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP8). This is the 8th time the parties have met since the Protocol became international law in 2005 and so is called CMP8. Canada withdrew from the Protocol at the end of 2011 and the U.S. never ratified it as agreements of this type were rejected by 100% of those voting in the Senate in 1997.

The various protocols, conventions and other agreements often seem too complicated for most people to follow and so they just trust that our representatives will keep Canada and the U.S. out of treaties that will bog down our economies for no real environmental benefit. This is a mistake. Under the guise of “saving the climate”, another Kyoto Protocol is being created and our leaders are major promoters of such a treaty.

The current foundation for UN climate negotiations is the Cancun Agreements, the most important part of which may be viewed here. Virtually all nations have agreed to this document, although it is not currently legally-binding.

However, the G8 announced in May 2011 that they supported the Cancun Agreements and called for it to be “operationalised” across the world. Developed country national governments have stated that they are committed to the creation of a legally-binding international mitigation treaty based on the process laid out in the Cancun Agreements. For example:

  • U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change, Todd Stern stated that the Cancun Agreements “is a very good step and a step that’s very much consistent with U.S. interests and will help move…the world down a path toward a broader global response to changing – to stopping climate change.”
  • In the last UN Climate Change Conference in South Africa, Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent said, “Canada believes that the Cancun Agreements, adopted at COP 16 and flowing from the Copenhagen Accord, do provide a sound conceptual and practical framework to advance our collective engagement to address climate change.” Even when announcing Canada’s withdrawal from Kyoto a few days later, he said, “The Durban Platform is a way forward that builds on our work at Copenhagen and Cancun.”

But such a deal would not be fundamentally different from the Kyoto Protocol, in which only developed countries were held to emission limits.

Here’s why we know this.

Unknown to most politicians, media and the general public, developing nations were effectively given an opt-out clause in the Cancun Agreements that would allow them to agree to legally-binding emission cuts but then never actually have to carry them out. Developed nations do not have this option.

In particular, the following two phrases from the Agreements show that, even if developing nations did sign on, it is unlikely that they would actually be held to rigid targets:

  • At the beginning of the Cancun Agreements it is stated: “…Parties should cooperate in achieving the peaking of global and national greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that the time frame for peaking will be longer in developing countries, and bearing in mind that social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing countries…”
  • In the section entitled “Nationally appropriate mitigation actions by developing country Parties”, the first clause starts: “Reaffirming that social and economic development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of developing country Parties, and that the share of global emissions originating in developing countries will grow to meet their social and development needs…”

In other words, if a Cancun-based treaty became international law, GHG reduction would proceed in developing nations only to the extent that it does not interfere with their “first and overriding priorities” of “social and economic development and poverty eradication.” Developed countries would be held to their emission reduction obligations regardless of the impact on their societies.

Since actions to significantly reduce GHG emissions will usually interfere with development priorities, developing countries will soon realize that an agreement based on Cancun will not limit their emissions. Such a treaty would then work in the same asymmetric fashion that the Kyoto Protocol has functioned. That Canada, Japan, the U.S. and Russia have said they will not participate in a second phase to the Kyoto Protocol may prove immaterial if any legally-binding treaty based on the Cancun Agreements ever comes into force.

There are other serious problems with our pledge to work with the U.N. to agree, by 2015, to a legally binding GHG reduction treaty, based on the Cancun Agreements, to come into force in 2020. Those I will address as the Qatar conference approaches.


Tom Harris is Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition – and a Research Fellow to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.