Thursday, 17 May 2007

Kyoto has targets, even if benefits unachievable

While its exciting that climate change and environmental issues in general have reached the upper echelons of political decision making in Canada, how exactly we capitalize on such massive public appetite for action is of critical importance. Like so many other *big issues* of the day which have been replaced in the national spotlight by other emergent issues, the time may soon come for this to be replaced by another. As such, this window we are currently in for what seems to be limitless action & planning should not be squandered.

In this first of several blogs on the environment debate, I'd like to quickly give both praise and criticism to the policies of the Conservative Harper Government. It doesn't matter whether or not the recent green-spending spree is a reaction to public opinion instead of something they actually want to do. It doesn't matter whether or not they are re-packaging previous government plans that have been shelved. Irrespective of the fact that they need to get tough on industrial emissions or recognize the value of Kyoto – what matters is that this administration is now finally doing some good things, and they deserve credit for what they are accomplishing. From being far from a priority a year ago, the CPC has come a tremendous way on this and are now approving billions of dollars in alternative energy investments, green tax incentives for individual households, money for the provinces and territories to develop clean air and other green initiatives, not to mention a crackdown on smog and dangerous chemicals. To take the public criticism, to acknowledge they got it wrong the first time, and to come around and prioritize this issue the way he has, Prime Minister Harper has exceeded all initial expectations of him on the environment. While I disagree with most CPC policies, and while I'll fall in line with Al Gore & Stephane Dion in saying that climate change is the *challenge of our time* and much much more in fact needs to be done - a start is (finally) under way here in Canada and we should give credit for the good steps that are being taken.

Now I may give them props for the recent string of green investments, but when it comes to Kyoto the CPC's position entirely misses the point. Since when should we be afraid to set ambitious goals that may or may not be out of our reach? Some of the greatest discoveries and collective human achievements have been a result of visions that looked far beyond the limits/capacities of their time. In his "Race Against Time" lecture series, UN Envoy for AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis, gives a very relevant assessment of another international framework which did not meet it's targets - that of WHO's 3x5 initiative. In 2003 UNAIDS and the World Health Organization rallied governments into a highly ambitious campaign to get 3 million people living with AIDS in developing and transition economies on to antiretroviral treatment therapy by 2005. While this goal was far from being met (1.3mil on ARV's by end '05) and some considered it a failure, the campaign has triggered tremendous momentum for treatment efforts. In his words:

"... what we now have, in country after country, is the single-minded pursuit of keeping people alive. When historians look back, there is no doubt in my mind that the 'three by five' campaign will be seen as a turning point. Everyone is now talking of 'universal access' to treatment, prevention and care by 2010. That would never have happened without the 'three by five' initiative."

It is from this type of perspective that I feel we must be looking at the potential value of something like Kyoto, because whether or not it is practically possible to achieve its targets is not really what this is about. Sure if we are able to that would be wonderful, but beyond that it's really about setting an ambitious goal and getting to work on it. Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions don't respect international borders. Melting of the polar ice caps affect far more than the arctic countries. Rising water levels affect far more places than our shores. "Made in Canada" solutions are great and we need plenty of them, but that doesn't mean we must develop them at the expense of international obligation - they should be part of it. Unfortunately even the most well intended international treaties are only able to take flight if major industrial nations such as Canada sign on, and as a major GHG emitter we have a responsibility to give this one a chance. The Kyoto Protocol will be viewed as a success if it energizes people and governments the world over to view their actions in the context of a liveable planet. It will be viewed as a success if emerging industrial powerhouses such as China & India start viewing alternative energy solutions as a priority to ultimately replacing their reliance on Coal & Oil. And if agressive action should validate environmentalist claims that it will also bring in economic value - the momentum that would ensue would be beyond anything we can right now comprehend.

If there was ever a truly global problem that required a truly global solution, this is it. I'll be the first to admit that the Kyoto framework isn't perfect - but when it comes to climate change, we are at one of those turning points where history will look back on what we have accomplished and what we could have accomplished with everything that we know about climate science and polluting behaviour. So even if we cannot reduce GHGs to 6% below 1990 levels by 2012, if we can at least do our part and provide some leadership here so that global momentum for sustainable action really takes off - it'll not just be better for the planet, but for Canada too. Even if the human survival argument doesn't play well with people - economic prosperity should. The collective green market/industry is just starting to blossom and it is only a matter of time before it is regarded as one of the premier global industries. Whether this happens sooner or later is uncertain, but it is inevitable - and the rewards to Canadians will be astronomical if we can come out in front on this. But if we and other industrial nations don't work to at least try to make this happen under a framework for international cooperation - we will be breaking Kyoto's back before even letting its potential be realized.
View of Earth taken in October 1997 by NASA's Apollo 17 Crew.
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