Hot Air: Putting Canada’s Inaction on Climate Change in a Global Context

Edmonton Journal, December 12, 2007, pg. 19

By Anthony Weis and Tim Weis

As the world leaders meet in Bali to find ways to stem the global climate crisis Canada is making its voice being heard, but sadly it is not the voice of leadership but that of a laggard.

In spite of mounting global criticism, the Government of Canada is opposing commitments for greenhouse gas reductions in Bali this week unless all major polluters such as China and India are treated similarly. In doing this, Canada has moved from being a quiet climate failure on the margins of multilateral negotiations to a roadblock to international progress.

A key principle underpinning on-going negotiations is that ‘industrialized’ countries must make bigger pollution reductions, and must make them first. This principle has the successful precedence of the Montreal Protocol that worked to curb the atmospheric pollutants causing holes in the ozone layer. Nonetheless, the fact that some countries are being asked to ‘go first’ is something that is commonly distorted and amplified by opponents claiming it is unfair.

There is a very good reason why industrialized countries like Canada and the United States are being called upon to make stronger commitments to reducing greenhouse gas pollution than developing countries – both historically and today we have had a grossly disproportionate role in producing them.

If one believes in the principle of polluter pays then industrialized nations, which were responsible for the lion’s share of emissions already in the atmosphere and possess extremely high per capita emissions, must bear the onus of making largest reductions.

Canada has been and continues to be amongst the worst per capita contributors to climate change in the world. With only 0.5 percent of the world’s population, Canada produces roughly 2 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas pollution. If negotiations were to equitably distribute the ‘safe’ amount of greenhouse gas pollution (as estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) to each person on the planet, Canadians would need to cut our greenhouse gas footprint by well over ten times what we committed to in the Kyoto Protocol.

Our current position is being framed with the language of ‘fairness’, while it seems to be asking China and India to be responsible for the same reductions as Canada, though the average Chinese citizen is responsible for only one-fifth as much pollution as the average Canadian, and the average Indian citizen one-tenth.

The global inequality of greenhouse gas emissions grows yet further when we realize that climate change is not just a result of what we are emitting right now, but is the outcome of an accumulation of all of the greenhouse gases that have been released atmosphere. Therefore it is important to keep in mind that any settlement which does not factor in this historical imbalance will already be letting developed countries like Canada and the United States off easily.

This is not to say that the emissions from China, India, and other fast-industrializing countries are not significant. In fact China’s absolute greenhouse gas emissions will soon overtake that of the U.S. (though the U.S. will still have vastly greater per capita emissions). So clearly, there needs to be a commitment which binds these countries to quantified, near-term actions.

Having failed to even attempt to curb our emissions, we are left with very little credibility to demand action from others. By entrenching in a position that is completely unacceptable to developing countries such as China and India, Canada is doing little more than scuttling the debate.

This is a prescription for inaction at a time when there is a broad scientific consensus that we need to prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels if we are to prevent major and likely irreversible damage to our environment, economy and communities. Tragically, we also know that those who are most vulnerable to the worst of these impacts are found in the world’s poorest regions – those least responsible for the damage.

Instead of writing real commitments down and working towards them, the Canadian Government proposed “aspirational” targets at the most recent Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

The government has also regularly resisted committing to actual overall reductions in emissions in favour of what they call “intensity-based” targets, which means emissions can continue to soar on into the future.

Unfortunately, the earth’s atmosphere will not react better if we merely aspire to change, or if we become more efficient polluters while the total volume of greenhouse gases continues to grow. The global community knows this and thus Canadians should not be surprised when the rest of the world refuses to take the government of Canada’s recent global warming grand-standing about ‘fairness’ seriously.


771 words

Dr. Tony Weis is an Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario.

Tim Weis, P.Eng., is a Senior Technical and Policy Analyst with the Pembina Institute, based in Edmonton, Alberta.


Dr. Tony Weis

Assistant Professor

Department of Geography

The University of Western Ontario


phone: (519) 661-2111 x. 87472

Tim Weis

Senior Policy Analyst

The Pembina Institute

Edmonton, Alberta


Tel: 780-717-6519


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