On this Day in 1997: A Very Recent History of Canada & International Climate Change Negotiations

As representatives from Canada and nearly 200 other nation-states meet in Copenhagen to negotiate the terms of a new international climate change and greenhouse gas emissions agreement, those of us with a predilection for a historical perspective might want to take a moment to reflect on our not too distant past.

A very brief walk down memory lane takes us back to the halcyon days of 1997. Scientists had cloned a sheep, NASA’s Pathfinder landed on Mars, and Our Lady Peace’s “Superman’s Dead” won the Much Music Video Awards People’s Choice for favourite video. And on December 11th, the front page of the Globe & Mail looked like this:

Globe & Mail, December 11, 1997, pg. A1

Tucked quietly into the corner that day was the real headline for our purposes here. Canada became a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol along with more than 150 other nations, including the member states of the European Union and the United States. This was an update to the 1992 climate change convention signed at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The Globe & Mail noted that “[m]ost nations, including Canada, did not live up to the commitments they made in that agreement.” But unlike the previous failure in Brazil, Peter Mansbridge declared on the CBC’s evening news that the Kyoto Protocol was “a very real deal.”

Canada agreed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by an unexpected 6% from 1990 levels by 2012. Going into the negotiations, the Canadian delegation had proposed a 3% reduction while the provincial governments back home sought a 0% reduction. According to Natural Resources Minister Ralph Goodale, the momentum from leading nations, like the United States, forced Canada to act: “Obviously with that momentum it would have been an absolutely untenable position for Canada to just stand aside. We wanted very much to be part of the solution.”

Environmentalists criticized the agreement for not going far enough with emissions reductions. The Globe & Mail reported that one of the major obstacles to further reductions was “the inability to get agreement from China, India and other major developing countries on other provisions in the treaty that would make it easier to reach more ambitious reduction targets.”

This limited agreement of a 6% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels received a cold homecoming in Canada from many provincial governments as well as the opposition parties in the House of Commons. Reform Party MP Deborah Gray declared that the agreement was “not even worth the recycled paper it’s printed on.” Preston Manning, the leader of the Official Opposition, predicted that implementation of the Kyoto Protocol would result in “a thirty-five cent per litre jump at the pumps.” In 1997, the average retail gasoline price in Canada was fifty-eight cents per litre. According to a federal report of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science, and Technology on “Gasoline Prices in Canada” the average retail price of gasoline by 2003 was 75 cents per litre, without any implementation of the Kyoto Protocol.

Source: Environment Canada. Information on Greenhouse Gases and Sinks: Canada's 2007 Greenhouse Gas Inventory. 2009

We know that Canada eventually ratified the Kyoto Protocol in December 2002. We also know that the challenge of reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by 6% of 1990 levels by 2012 has been made substantially more difficult by this inconvenient truth: In 2007, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions were 26.2% above 1990 levels and 33.8% above the Kyoto target for 2012, according to Environment Canada.

Hopefully the Canadian delegation in Copenhagen will negotiate another climate change agreement with this recent history in mind. Many of the issues and arguments surrounding climate change negotiations in 1997 remain the same today. Perhaps we can learn from past efforts to make better choices for the future.

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