It is an odd place for Canada, which typically is seen as one of the most responsible players on the global stage, usually pushing an agenda of mutual cooperation. But the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has staked out an aggressive environmental position ahead of these talks, complete with rumors that Canada may withdraw completely from the landmark Kyoto Protocols, the international compact aimed at curbing the emission of climate-changing greenhouse gases (GHGs). A key source of contention has been Canada's Oil Sands, which the Harper government touts as a valuable source of crude oil from a stable and friendly country and which the environmentalists condemn as just another way to tie the world to the existing fossil fuel economy for decades to come, while also being a major source of GHG emissions in their own right.
In Durban, Canada is also balking at an agreement for developed countries to establish a fund to help poorer developing nations to mitigate the impacts of climate change that their countries may be experiencing. Environment Minister Peter Kent took a decidedly un-Canadian tack in discussing the fund, saying: “there is a fairly widely held perception in the developing world of the need for guilt payment” as part of any future climate agreement. It is part of a larger position taken by the Harper government that Canada will not sign onto any future climate change agreement that does not also require firm reduction commitments from developing nations as well. Typically, the burden for GHG reduction has fallen on the developed world, since it is argued (usually by the developing nations themselves) that requiring the same level of intensity from developing nations in reducing GHG emissions would stifle their fragile economies and potentially trap countless millions of people in poverty. And, the developing nations further argue, since much of the historic emission of GHGs came from the developed world, the burden in reducing it should be theirs.
Kent, and the government he represents, have taken an aggressive stance in dealing with the climate change issue, one that has angered environmentalists and their supporters. But like most arguments, there is a grain of truth within it. Kent notes that in the developing nations pool are countries like China and India – relatively well-off countries but demanding to be treated like the poorest nations in the world. There is clearly a difference between China, now the world's second-largest economy and its top GHG emitter, and a place like Bangladesh. Dirty, coal-fired power plants have helped to drive China to annual growth rates of 8 to 10% per year; and not caring about GHG emissions, at least until very recently, has been another way that China has kept their production costs artificially low and their exports abnormally cheap. China is happy to act like an emerging superpower when it comes to doling out foreign aid in Africa or throwing their weight around militarily in the Pacific Basin, but when called on to act like a member of the top nations club in terms of leading on the environment (or in another area, like human rights), China shrinks back and hides behind the “developing nations” tag – I'm not sure what the Chinese word for hypocrisy is, but this is certainly a good example of it in action.
You can find a lot to criticize in Minister Kent's approach towards Durban, and PM Harper's overall environmental position, but at least on this issue they have a valid point – if the global community is serious about tackling climate change, then it is time to expect the top emerging economies in the world to start acting like they belong at the big table and do their part, even if it means their economy at home may suffer a bit.