What Does Canada's Withdrawal From Kyoto Protocol Mean?
By Adam Vaughan
14 December, 2011
Canada has shown that a legally binding deal does not guarantee countries won't walk away from their commitments
It's been four years in the offing, but Canada on Monday finally and formally withdrew from the world's only existing legal treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the Kyoto protocol.
Despite criticism from environmentalists and the international community – China has called the move "irresponsible" through its state media – Canada is within its legal rights. The environment minister, Peter Kent, said: "We are invoking our legal right to formally withdraw from Kyoto."
Josh Roberts, a US-qualified lawyer at environmental law organisation ClientEarth, points out that article 27 of the Kyoto protocol allows any country to withdraw three years after the protocol is in force, ie about now. The protocol was ratified in 2005, but came into force on 1 January 2008, the start of the so-called first commitment period for countries to cut their emissions, which finishes at the end of 2012. Countries wanting to withdraw from the protocol also have to give a year's notice, according to Kyoto experts, which would explain Canada's timing – just over a year before the end of the first commitment phase.
Roberts says that while the get-out clause is fairly standard in international treaties, it is rarely used. "States want the flexibility if an agreement is later decided to not be in the best interest of the country," he says. "Countries can trigger these release clauses, but it happens very rarely. For example, Norway and Iceland left the International Whaling Commission's treaty, but such moves are rare."
Kent also claimed that Canada would have to pay billions to meet its Kyoto protocol target. Canada was meant to cut emissions by 6% by 2012 on 1990 levels, but instead they have risen by around a third. "To meet the targets under Kyoto for 2012 would be the equivalent of ... the transfer of $14bn (£8.7bn) from Canadian taxpayers to other countries – the equivalent of $1,600 from every Canadian family – with no impact on emissions or the environment," he said yesterday.
The $14bn figure appears to refer to the cost of Canada buying carbon emission permits (AAUs) from other Kyoto protocol countries so that Canada could – under the treaty's rules – meet its target. By withdrawing now, Canada ducks that cost.
If Canada had remained in the protocol, it could have avoided this cost another way: by simply not meeting its targets. If that happened, the protocol's compliance committee would begin a quasi-judicial procedure that would declare Canada "non-compliant". Beyond such naming and shaming, the committee has few powers of sanction.
The committee would also give Canada a harder target for a second commitment period of the Kyoto protocol, taking into account how far it had missed the first period. But Canada has not signed up for a second commitment period – and has been vocal in saying it won't – so such a target would be meaningless.
In short, as Roberts puts it: "The Kyoto protocol has very few teeth beyond international diplomatic censure."
Canada's withdrawal is also a timely reminder that, while negotiators at the Durban climate conference burned the midnight oil over the weekend to agree on a form of words that should lead to a legally binding deal to cut emissions after 2020, there is no guarantee countries won't walk away from their commitments later down the line.
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