Kyoto Protocol gets second phase as first fizzles out, but key players move on to new climate change treaty

Canada and the Quest to Kill Kyoto

The Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period (2008-2012) ends today, on December 31, 2012, and although a second commitment will sustain the treaty from tomorrow until the year 2020, it will be continuing on without several key nations — including the United States, Russia, China, India, and Canada.

The Kyoto Protocol was the international community's bold first step towards reducing the damage that our civilization is causing to planet Earth due to carbon dioxide emissions. However, the steps after that faltered, caught in a morass of politics, economic woes and unrealistic goals. Some countries, notably the United States, China and India, saw the merit of the agreement in principle, but had little faith in the treaty's effectiveness, and thus they did not finalize their involvement.

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In Canada, the treaty was ratified by Parliament in 2002, and the Protocol's goal for Canada was for us to reduce our carbon emissions to six per cent below what they were in 1990. Instead, by 2009, the country's total carbon emissions were up by one-third over 1990 levels. The government adjusted our goals — to 17 per cent below 2005 levels — however even that was unattainable, perhaps showing the fundamental flaws of the Kyoto Protocol.

Citing the impossibility of meeting the goals set forth by the treaty and wanting to avoid the billions of dollars in penalties the country would have to pay for failing to meet those goals, Environment Minister Peter Kent announced last year that Canada would be withdrawing from Kyoto, and as of December 15th, 2012, we were out.

However, just as today does not mean the end of the Kyoto Protocol, Canada's withdrawal from the treaty does not end our government's commitment to reducing greenhouse gases. One thing to come out of the 2011 UN Climate Change Conference was the 'Durban Platform' — a new climate change treaty that has a 'leg up' over the Kyoto Protocol, since the major players (US, China, India) have all signed onto this one, at least for now. This treaty promises to be more legally-binding than any previous agreement, but it is still in its beginning stages.

All nations that have signed onto the 'Platform' have committed to the idea of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, however the legal agreements that will bind them aren't due to be completed until 2015, and then the signing governments have another five years after that to ratify the treaty.

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Overall, there's mixed feelings about this development.

On the one hand, it's good to see an agreement that has a bigger involvement from the largest carbon emitters on the planet. It's also good that this new agreement is intended be more legally-binding than the Kyoto Protocol.

On the other hand, exactly how legally-binding the new treaty will be and exactly what that will end up meaning is still up in the air at the moment. Also, given that 2020 has been used all along as a critical deadline that marks when emissions must be cut by, or global temperature rises will exceed 2°C (which puts the planet at risk of dangerously-accelerated climate change and irreversible damage to our planet's ecosystem), this seems to be playing a little bit too close to the fire. After all, this 'Platform' is not binding. It is simply an agreement to write up an agreement.

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