Kent’s clever wording on Kyoto

The anti-Kyoto campaign has been carefully crafted to gain public support for the federal government to do something no previous government has ever done — withdraw from an international treaty.

The arguments appear sufficiently plausible to justify the decision. On these pages, Environment Minister Peter Kent wrote: “had Canada stayed in the Kyoto Protocol, we would have been required to buy $14-billion worth of compliance credits (which would do nothing to reduce emissions) … to meet our target for the first commitment period under the Protocol, ending in December 2012.”

Whatever your view of the climate-change issue, I invite you to join me in deconstructing this sentence. It is a sleight of hand designed to create a false impression, like a clever magic trick. Did you read the statement above as claiming the Kyoto Protocol would require Canada to spend $14-billion if we stayed within the legal agreement?

The fact is the Kyoto Protocol cannot require us to spend a single dime.

Let’s go back to break down the sentence. It would be accurate to say that “in order to meet our target for the first commitment period,” we would have been required to buy $14 billion worth of compliance credits. What most people would infer is that Kyoto can require us to meet our target.

Nothing in the agreement requires that we do so. If of our own volition, after years of reneging on the commitment, we were suddenly, 11 months before the deadline, to decide we must comply, the only way to do it would be to buy credits. They could easily cost more than $14-billion. But there is no mechanism in Kyoto to require us to meet the target and certainly no sane person would suggest trying to do so at this point by buying credits.

Peter Kent continues: “You cannot enter the second commitment period without completing the first, and we either pay the $14-billion or we would be in violation of the protocol.”

It is true that Canada would be in violation of the protocol when the first commitment period ends on Dec. 31, 2012, but there is no penalty for being in violation.

Is it true to claim “you cannot enter the second commitment period without completing the first”? It certainly makes intuitive sense, but it’s not accurate.

Japan is likely to miss its Kyoto target, but Japan has said clearly it will stay within the protocol as it enters its second phase. Japan has also said it will not take on new targets in the second commitment period, but it will stay in the protocol.

Canada could either stay in the protocol without a new target or we could negotiate a new target in the second commitment period that is below the target we have missed from the first period. Canada could make legally binding the target set by the current government — 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. This is the one place where the pathetically weak enforcement provision of the Kyoto Protocol would kick in. For every ton a country agrees to reduce in the second commitment period, a 0.3 ton “top up” is added for every ton of reduction missed in the first period. It simple enough to negotiate the target such that when the 0.3 ton is added, the goal is identical to the current government target.

The reality is that if the government were serious about achieving an agreement that includes China, it would move to work within Kyoto. China has insisted that a Kyoto second commitment period is its condition for moving forward to make binding commitments to cut its emissions.

So, here’s the reality: Kyoto has been extended to a second commitment period that has the support of the vast majority of the nations of the world. There are no financial penalties under Kyoto for non-compliance. Japan, out of compliance and not accepting new targets, is staying in Kyoto — with no penalties. Canada can stay in Kyoto without it costing us a dime. And the fact that Peter Kent’s article made you think otherwise is a tribute to clever wording.

– Originally printed in the National Post.