by Brian Lee Crowley

No matter what the official communiqué says after the UN Climate Change conference beginning in Montreal this week, the delegates have come, not to praise Kyoto, but to bury it.

The Kyoto Treaty was always a non-starter, and not just because the science behind it is subject to increasingly credible challenge or because the benefits have always appeared paltry and hypothetical compared to its real and steep costs. It is also fundamentally unjust in the way it apportions the costs and benefits of reducing any human contribution to climate change. It is not enough to want to do good; you must also do justice, and the two are not the same.

The latest world leader to admit that Kyoto charts an unsustainable course to manage human-made greenhouse gases (GHG) that are believed to contribute to climate change is British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair has been a major Kyoto advocate, but he recently recognized that the treaty was based on a mistaken approach.

His insight? “The truth is, no country is going to cut its growth or consumption substantially in the light of a long-term environmental problem.”

Blair’s suggests moving from compulsory targets to voluntary ones, thus at least getting Kyoto naysayers, such as the United States and Australia, to agree to the principle of GHG reduction.

But why pick on the non-signatories? Blair should worry about those who have signed, like Canada. We joined with much fanfare, in part to distinguish ourselves from the Americans, conspicuous by their absence, and in part because Canada loves grand gestures that sound good but mean little.

Kyoto certainly falls into the grand but empty gesture category. The treaty gives Canada until 2012 to cut GHG emissions to 6 percent below where they were in 1990. As even the government-friendly Toronto Star admits, the federal government has failed to reduce emissions at all. Greenhouse gases in Canada have risen rather than dropped since the accord was written so that the Kyoto gap grows steadily wider.

Nothing surprising there; the government has never had, and still does not have, any credible plan to reduce GHG. That’s because the unavoidable cost of meeting Kyoto’s targets would be a significant decline in Canada’s standard of living. And yet by the calculations of Kyoto’s friends, the resulting contribution to reducing global warming would be negligible. With friends like these…

And speaking of Kyoto’s friends, such as David Suzuki and Alberta’s Pembina Institute, they are now claiming that the current targets are way too low. They are calling for GHG reductions, not of 6 percent, but of 25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. The consequences for our economy and even our way of life would be incalculable.

Kyoto’s governmental friends are no more reassuring. It’s not just Canada that has missed its targets. Eleven of the 25 countries in the European Union have also failed to meet their GHG reduction targets. Most of the others, being former eastern bloc states, met theirs because their economies collapsed after the fall of Communism. Japan has emissions that are nearly a fifth higher than they are supposed to be, and only achieved that by exporting much of their manufacturing to China and other Asian countries that have no Kyoto targets to meet.

No target to meet? How can that be? Doesn’t everyone bear the burden of cleaning up the global environment? No. The existing targets only apply to industrialized countries, most of the Third World having been given a pass in Kyoto I. But if you think that China and others are meekly lining up to have their own fast-growing economies hobbled to please Western environmentalists in a Kyoto II, think again.

As The Times of London refreshingly observes, China rejects mandatory emissions targets, India probably will, and in 25 years these two countries alone will account for a quarter of global carbon emissions. Thus, even if every EU member were to incur the hefty expense of meeting the Kyoto obligations in full, the “return” would be a negligible, indeed barely detectable, 0.01-degree reduction in net global warming. And the West would be paying to de-industrialize itself for the benefit of China, India and the Asian Tigers.

Hypocrisy is often an attractive policy for governments that want to look good while downplaying unpleasant truths. Neither the environment nor the economy is well served, however, by a policy that maximizes uncertainty (will we implement Kyoto? At what cost? Who will pay?), and rewards inaction (countries that fail to live up to their Kyoto commitments will be advantaged compared to those who try) while distributing the burdens of virtue inequitably. Our own leaders know this. But so far only Tony Blair, as usual, has had the courage to say what needs to be said.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (www.aims.ca), a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: BrianLeeCrowley@AIMS.ca