Going ‘rogue’: Western professor warns Kyoto pullout could have dire consequences for Canada

Radoslav Dimitrov was there the day Canada became a “rogue state” in the eyes of the world.

Dimitrov, a Western political science professor, has been a member of the Bulgarian delegation to the last several U.N. Climate Change Conferences, including the most recent one last month in Durban, South Africa. He has worked with the U.N. for more than a decade, since his time as a doctoral student studying international negotiations at the University of Minnesota.

His access to the climate talks has provided the dual citizen (Canadian/Bulgarian) with a unique vantage point into the proceedings denied most Canadians by a mostly absent national media. From that front-row seat last month, he witnessed the days leading up to Canada’s historic withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.

While the storm of criticism against Canada was strong immediately following the move, Dimitrov sees a far bleaker future should this country hold steadfast in its stance.

“There are no substantive reasons to pull out of Kyoto that have anything to do with the national interest of Canada” he says. “At the same time, even though it is unnecessary, the move is highly detrimental on a global scale. Countries can forgive a decision to stay out of a future agreement. But to withdraw from an existing agreement, and undermine current negotiations on a global treaty, that is categorically different.

“Make no mistake; this is going to be a diplomatic disaster of unprecedented magnitude for Canada.”

The Kyoto Protocol was signed and ratified by a vast majority of countries, apart from the United States, in 1997. The agreement commits industrial nations to reducing annual CO2 emissions to below 1990 levels, while providing financial supports to developing nations to follow suit. The agreement is strong in wording, but weak in enforcement. There are no penalties attached to failure to meet targets.

Canada ratified the agreement in 1997.

At the Durban conference, that agreement was extended with a second commitment period of five or eight years (until 2017 or 2020), a determination to be made at a later date. However, this time, the treaty was extended without participation from Canada, Russia and Japan. Led by Environment Minister Peter Kent, the Canadian delegation made the announcement of the country’s withdrawal, rumoured for weeks prior, the day the delegation arrived home from the talks.

It was the first time Canada has withdrawn from any existing international treaty.

Many international observers have called the Canadian delegation’s behavior at the talks shameful. Dimitrov describes a Canadian delegation almost standoffish in its approach to the conference, avoiding conversation and sticking closely to the United States.

“Others will regard us as a rogue nation basically. We are the only country making such a dramatic move,” he says. “The withdrawal from Kyoto is either a deliberate attack on global climate co-operation or a reckless act without any regard to consequences. Or both.

“Either way the world will blame us for wrecking not only Kyoto but global co-operation on climate change.”

To many, the decision and timing remain both murky and illogical.

Like the United States, Canada wants other large emitting countries previously qualified as ‘developing,’ including China and India, to be held to the same standards going forward. China and India argue Western countries created the problem and should pay a heavier price and take the primary burden for reducing emissions.

That’s a reasonable rub, Dimitrov says. But at Durban, and for the first time ever, China, India and Brazil offered conditional support of a new binding treaty which brings them in line with other major powers. Durban launched a new negotiating process for that global policy agreement. Currently, the wording is quite ambiguous and does not guarantee the outcome will be a legally binding treaty. But it’s a start.

“The very opening of the topic is a historic milestone,” Dimitrov says.

Based on those parameters for a new agreement, Russia and Japan expressed some wiggle room for returning to Kyoto. But Canada remains defiant.

That creates problems going forward. For many other countries, Kyoto’s survival is a precondition to a broader global treaty that will include all emitters. “So any attack on Kyoto is an attack on the global co-operation on climate change,” Dimitrov says. “And in this critical moment, Canada is pulling the rug out from under people’s feet.”

Like many of his European Union (EU) colleagues, he sees Canada’s decision driven by the political ideology of the current Conservative government and its cozy relationship with Washington, D.C. on matters of climate and economy.

“We are doing the United States a favour by sparing them the effort to wreck international co-operation themselves,” he says.

In Durban, he saw U.S. negotiators whispering in the ear – “literally and metaphorically” – of the Canadian delegation. “I would not be surprised if Canada was the puppet here,” he says. “This way, the United States does not have to pay the price.”

But beyond the ideological, a massive economic incentive looms, one Canada simply refuses to position itself to capture. “By protecting the oil industry, we are hurting the national economy,” Dimitrov says.

If you want to know the truth, Dimitrov stresses, look at what countries do once they get home, not what they say at these international conferences. There is a “stark contrast” between the stagnated U.N. climate policy negotiation process and progressive domestic climate policy implementation in countries around the world.

“U.N. negotiations are in serious trouble. They are not going anywhere right now,” he says. “At the same time, you see an incredibly vibrant realm of climate policy around the world making very steady progress. All the major countries – except for Canada and the United States – are moving ahead toward renewable energy, alternative technology and energy efficiency.

“This is the key to understanding the picture. If you focus just on the U.N. negotiations, it’s a sad, sad story. They have been running in circles.”

Norway, Europe’s largest oil exporter, has set down plans for 40 per cent emission cuts by 2020, and to become carbon neutral by 2030. Sweden plans to move completely away from fossil fuels in a generation. Several European countries have taken the lead in considering sanctions attached to imports from high-carbon countries.

“What is driving this is an economic rationale. Those who will be left behind will be the economic losers,” Dimitrov says.

Canada’s real problem isn’t Kyoto, but the lack of any plan to modernize the economy and cut emissions. That’s not unique to this Conservative government, Dimitrov points out. Previous governments also failed to address the challenge.

Even prior to its departure, Canada was not on track to meet its legally binding targets. Under Kyoto, Canada was committed to a 6 per cent emissions reduction; instead, emissions have grown by 30 per cent.

“What actually makes the international community angry, even indignant, about Canada is not just the non-compliance with the treaty, but the lack of any effort to do anything about it. It is one thing to miss your objectives, but to not try anything in order to meet them is a different story,” Dimitrov says. “Now, when we stick a knife in the Kyoto Protocol, and therefore undermine a global effort to reach a global treaty, in the eye of the global community, we are turning into a rogue state – the North Korea of climate politics.”