In 2002, the Canadian government ratified the Kyoto Protocol, an international environmental treaty that required Canada to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by the 2008 to 2012 commitment period. But while the Canadian public lauded the action, Canadian federal and provincial governments have yet to adopt the concrete measures needed to reduce Canada’s emissions.

So why are some countries on track to meet their Kyoto targets while others have failed to build any significant momentum? Political science professor Kathryn Harrison is looking to find answers to that very question. Specifically, she is collaborating on a research project entitled “Global Commons, National Interests,” funded by the Weyerhaeuser Foundation, that is uncovering how the circumstances in different countries can help us understand why certain governments have made progress on climate change while others have not.

“It is a pretense that the Kyoto Protocol imposed comparable burdens on industrial nations. It looked like Japan, Canada, the United States (U.S.) and the European Union (E.U.) had taken on comparable reductions because they were all in the -6 range but in practice, the magnitude of change required to meet a similar nominal target was much greater for Canada, the U.S. and Australia,” she says.

Turning the tide

Harrison points to the E.U. as an example of a party whose target was not as demanding relative to a business-as-usual trajectory. She attributes the E.U.’s greater progress to a lower rate of population growth, the shift away from highly polluting industries by two of its biggest players (Germany and the U.K.), a stronger public appetite for climate change action and a proportional representation electoral system that amplifies the influence of smaller parties, such as the Green Party.

Conversely, Harrison notes that Canada’s inability to meet Kyoto targets has also been influenced by the U.S.’s decision to reject ratification. However, she believes that U.S. President Barack Obama’s election will create opportunities for change in Canada.

“We’ve dragged our heels for a decade but one of the reasons is that it was difficult to act alone. When the U.S. moves, it will be a lot easier for us to do so,” says Harrison. “On the other hand, one of the lessons from this cross-national comparison has been that if voters make environmental policy a priority, their elected officials will respond.Canadian voters have to really want it.”

Reprinted with permission from:  Frontier, volume 6, Spring/Summer 2009