Shifting political will

18th January 2012

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Following Canda's withdrawl from the Kyoto Protocol, Paul Suff wonders whether environmental considerations will ever be able to trump political motivations

Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, but the US Senate refused to ratify it, leaving the world’s largest (at the time) emitter of greenhouse gases an outsider. Clinton’s successor, George Bush, later pulled the US out of the Kyoto accord as one of the first acts of his presidency, dismissing the protocol as too costly.

Canada officially endorsed the treaty in 2002 under the then prime minister Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government, but in December 2011 it became the first developed country signatory to withdraw from the accord, which expires next year.

Canada’s current Conservative government, having declared when taking office that it did not intend to meet the country’s existing commitments under the treaty, announced it had no choice but to withdraw given the economic situation, claiming the decision would save an estimated £8.6 billion in penalties.

What this overview of the North American political response to tackling climate change reveals is that changes in government can often totally alter a country’s stance, making a global consensus difficult to achieve and even harder to implement.

So, despite the unexpected “success” of the Durban climate change talks in agreeing a roadmap to developing a new global treaty that would embrace all parties, including China, India and the US, and would become operational as soon as possible (by 2020), the activity and inactivity of North American politicians over the past 15 years should act as a reminder that the political will for change can quickly vanish.

The Canadian government’s announcement that it was withdrawing from Kyoto came just days after its negotiators in South Africa had signed up to developing a successor, and as its annual emissions reach levels 30% higher than they should be under the original protocol.

Of course, it may not be so easy to renege on a new deal that has “legal force” and includes all countries, but future prospective political leaders, mindful that some of their electorate may be unwilling to embrace the changes necessary to stem global temperature rise, will always demand an opt-out.


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