Environmentally, Canada's Going the Way of the Dinosaur

November 29th, 2000
By Naomi Klein

Last week, two Canadians made international headlines by burning their passports. They were protesting Canada’s leading role in making sure that the climate summit in The Hague was a complete disaster.

The catalyst? A coalition of 287 environmental groups handed daily "fossil" awards to countries that were especially obstructionist in the negotiations. Canada ended the conference with more awards than any other country, including the United States. For most people, the passport bonfire was a bit extreme—"shrill" to quote The New York Times.

When Tooker Gomberg, one of the passport pyros, called from The Hague on Sunday, I told him he may have done the cause of climate change a disservice. "If a single journalist had asked me why I burned my passport," he replied angrily, "I would have been happy to tell them."

He has a point. Mr. Gomberg’s stunt was the only event at the summit that managed to pry the attention of Canadians away from our election and the Florida recount—if only for 30 seconds. And the scandalous events in The Hague deserve much more scrutiny than that.

In Kyoto three years ago, Canada, along with the other signatories, committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels by the year 2012. The meeting in The Hague was supposed to hash out the details of how that would take place. With former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy leading the delegation, Canada’s position was that the Earth’s climate was, indeed, changing. Our scientists testified that warmer temperatures are affecting everything from B.C. salmon runs, to Innu hunting grounds, to sweltering apartments in our downtowns.

But rather than approaching this as a crisis calling for swift action, the Canadian delegation appeared to see global warming as an accounting challenge calling for some especially creative math. Our government poured its expertise into figuring out how to classify energy trade, foreign aid and forest management as emissions cuts. Canada put everything on the negotiating table—everything except reducing greenhouse gases to the levels already agreed upon in Kyoto.

The Canadian delegation arrived with a suitcase full of loopholes and, along with our American friends, proceeded to pull them out, one after another, each more ingenious than the next, until the Europeans finally walked away in disgust. In their election platform, the Liberals claimed to have taken international "leadership on the climate change problem" and restated their promise to meet the reduction targets in the Kyoto protocol.

Only the Liberals didn’t tell voters how they planned to reach those targets. First, as we found out last week, it’s by getting emission-reduction "credit" for giving money to developing countries to get them to reduce their emissions. In other words, rather than cleaning up our own act, we want to pay off other countries to clean up theirs (something we should do anyway, since poor countries are suffering disproportionately from extreme weather).

In another attempt to off-load our environmental commitments, Canada proposed getting similar credits for selling nuclear reactors to other countries—repackaging a dodgy trading scheme as an even dodgier environmental one.

But Canada’s most obstructionist position in The Hague—the deal breaker—was that the carbon soaked up by our forests and farmland should be counted as an emission reduction. Yes, it’s true: After allowing the clear cutting of our forests, bulldozing over environmentalists who had the audacity to argue that trees clean the air (those flakes), our politicians went to The Hague armed with PowerPoint presentations about the magic of photosynthesis. Look, they said, if we count the carbon soaked up by tree farms (planted where old-growth forests use to be), North Americans can keep belching fossil fuels and never have to look at sustainable energy sources like wind and solar.

Isn’t nature handy—I mean, when it doesn’t cost you anything?

This week is the first anniversary of the massive protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization. People often wonder why so-called extremists feel the need to take to the streets. The answer was in The Hague last week. Finally, eight years after the historic Earth Summit in Rio, we were going to move from endless talk to concrete, if modest, action.

The conference fell apart. According to Lloyd Axworthy, that’s not necessarily bad. Now that all the issues have been aired, he says, "we can use this framework as a platform in which we do some serious talk." Can’t wait.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.