Climate agreement pits Canada's east against its west

Prime Minister Chrétien will ratify the Kyoto Protocol by year's end, but critics say his plan lacks details.

It was no surprise that the Kyoto accord sailed easily through Canada's Parliament on Tuesday.

Despite a vocal opposition - and some dissent within his own party - Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's Liberal Party used its parliamentary majority to pass a resolution endorsing the climate-control treaty.

But as it heads toward ratification by Mr. Chrétien by year's end, the treaty has revived a two-decades-old rift between Canada's oil-producing western provinces and the politically dominant east.

Kyoto would make huge demands on Canada. By 2012, Canada - one of the world's largest per capita producers of greenhouse gases - would have to cut emissions 30 percent. Critics say that as the only North American country to follow the accord, Canada may be put at an economic disadvantage compared with its free-trade partners, the US and Mexico. (Mexico is exempted from the treaty and the US says it will not ratify it).

The Fraser Institute, a conservative think tank in Vancouver, says the accord would economically weaken Canada and Canadians because its costs will inevitably be passed on to consumers. "Do you have to get a smaller house? Do you have to get a smaller car?... Do you have to buy cheaper food?" asks Fraser's Ken Green, an environmental scientist. "Basically, [Canadians] will be made poorer by the situation.... Poor is sicker, both at the national level and at the individual level."

To western Canadians, Kyoto is a bitter replay of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's national energy plan in 1980. It sought to redistribute the west's oil wealth during a time of gas shortages, but the west saw it as a cash-grab by the Ottawa government. Relations between Canada's regions have never completely recovered.

In the current debate, all players insist they want a cleaner world, but disagree on how to achieve it. The oil-rich province of Alberta and an energy-industry lobby - echoing President George W. Bush's position for the US - demand a "Made in Canada" solution that allows the country flexibility to achieve emissions goals.

Alberta predicts Kyoto will cost 450,000 jobs, investment would flee, and taxes and gas prices would soar. Some firms warn of possible cutbacks and layoffs. As a result, dissent spilled into Chrétien's own party. Twelve Liberal Party members didn't even vote on the accord - a move interpreted as veiled disapproval.

The federal government calls the gloomy scenarios exaggerated and fought back with pro-Kyoto commercials. Nevertheless, critics charge that Ottawa has produced neither a clear implementation plan nor a comprehensive assessment of the accord's effects.

Chrétien insists the country will adjust to Kyoto over time. To alleviate fears, the government announced - at the last minute - that it may cap the costs industries would pay to meet Kyoto's targets, with the taxpayer covering overruns.

Environmentalists applaud Ottawa's pro-Kyoto stand. "It means Canada starts to turn the trend of increasing emissions downward," says Gerry Scott of the David Suzuki Foundation. "We start to move towards cleaner energy forms."

The debate, though, has left many Canadians, whom polls show generally support the initiative, confused.

Management consultant Robin Porter worries that smog caused her son's breathing problems, so she supports Kyoto.

"The appliances in my house are low energy, my thermostat is down," she says. "I am absolutely willing to play my part." Yet she also fears that Kyoto is so ill considered that it is economically "risky."

Entrepreneur Kim Chernecki says she's sure that industry will figure out how to meet its Kyoto obligations. "You've got to make it work because - I don't mean to sound hokey - it is the future of our planet."

Tuesday's vote doesn't end Canada's Kyoto debate. Alberta Premier Ralph Klein is already looking past Chrétien's 2004 resignation. Former Finance Minister Paul Martin - another Liberal with misgivings over Canada's handling of the issue - is expected to take over as prime minister. Klein hopes Martin will find the "wiggle room" to work out that "Made in Canada" solution, when Ottawa negotiates Kyoto's implementation with the provinces.

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