Bienvenue au Canada: Welcome to Your Friendly Neighborhood Petro-State

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Renault Philippe/Hemis/

A refinery outside of the city of Quebec, Canada. Canada has been criticized for pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol

I spent a year in Canada as a teenager in 1993 and ’94, living in the metro Toronto neighborhood of Scarborough, which for some reason Canadians think is hilarious. Aside from the unfortunate 1993 World Series — damn you, Joe Carter — I loved it. I was from white-bread suburban Pennsylvania, and Toronto was one of the most diverse cities in the world. But I loved Canada as a whole — President’s Choice cola, The Kids in the Hall, socialized medicine, bilingual political debates — for being everything the U.S. was not. The year I lived there, a cheery politician from Quebec named Jean Chrétien led the Liberal Party to victory in the national elections, ending nearly a decade of Conservative rule. Canada — with its official multicultural policies — was seen as a leader on human rights and the environment, a progressive counterweight to its lurching neighbor to the south. Remember when the Huffington Post-er boy Alec Baldwin pledged to move to Canada if George W. Bush won in 2004? Sure, he didn’t actually do it — and thank God, because of 30 Rock — but back then it still made sense to envision Canada as a haven for disaffected American liberals.

Not so much any more, though. Any illusion that Canada remains a much more liberal place than the U.S. on the environment at least was shattered yesterday when Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent, just returned from the U.N. climate summit in the South African city of Durban, announced that the country would be formally withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, becoming the first nation to do so. As Kent put it:

Kyoto – for Canada — is in the past. As such, we are invoking our legal right to formally withdraw.

Canada’s actual decision isn’t surprising — Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been opposed to Kyoto since he took office in 2006, and Kent reportedly delayed the announcement until after Durban to avoid taking the focus off the U.N. talks (and probably to avoid even more criticism of Canada at the summit). But has Canada really gone over to the dark side on climate change?

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The reality is that Kyoto was always a tough deal for Canada, which was required to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions 6% below the 1990 levels by 2012. While nations in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union got a paradoxical break from the fall of communism — which led to economic collapse and, by definition, a decline in industrial-greenhouse output — Canadian emissions have risen significantly in the years since, and today are more than 30% above the 1990 target. By formally withdrawing from the treaty now — which any country has the right to do — Canada avoids an explicit finding of noncompliance, which as the University of Alberta environment professor and blogger Andrew Leach points out, is a bit like a student who’s failing a course dropping it before actually pulling an F. There’d be no real financial penalty if Canada stayed in Kyoto and took the noncompliance hit — indeed, the Canadian government has claimed that it would cost the country nearly $14 billion to remain a part of the protocol, but that’s only if it wanted to buy enough carbon credits to make its targets. Withdrawing from Kyoto — which does not mean Canada drops out of the larger U.N. climate negotiations — just makes the country’s position official.

If anything, as Adam Vaughan writes in the Guardian, Canada’s move is a reminder that even binding international treaties ultimately depend on the will of the nations that have signed on to them. As with Kyoto, there’s rarely any enforcement penalty in international law — aside from trade policy — so if a country is willing to accept the moral condemnation that might come from backing out of an international treaty, no one can stand in the way, as environmental lawyer Josh Roberts told Vaughan:

States want the flexibility if an agreement is later decided to not be in the best interest of the country. Countries can trigger these release clauses, but it happens very rarely. For example, Japan, Norway and Iceland all left the International Whaling Commission’s treaty, but such moves are rare.

So the question then is why Canada — good, green Canada — decided that the Kyoto Protocol was no longer in its best interests? The Conservative Harper government has gotten a lot of blame — and certainly his Administration can hardly be characterized as green — but the reality is that even Chrétien and his successor Paul Martin did little to stop the rise of carbon emissions from growing during the Liberals’ nearly 13-year-long reign, as John Ibbitson writes in the Globe and Mail:

The Liberals found themselves stuck with Draconian targets that, if met, would hobble oil sands production, hammer big industry in Ontario, and send home-heating bills through the roof. Their solution was to study the issue. And study. I remember sitting through an interminable briefing in 2003, in which officials patiently explained how Canada would meet its Kyoto targets. The only problem was that there was this enormous gap, which was to be closed through “future reductions.” It was like having a household budget in which Miscellaneous was bigger than Mortgage.

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And what was driving that increase in carbon emissions? A lot of factors, but there’s one that’s risen to the top: natural deposits of oil and natural gas. Canada is, increasingly, a petro-state, its economy dominated by the booming oil and natural-gas sectors. Canada’s oil reserves are second only to those in Saudi Arabia, and last year it exported over 480 million barrels of crude oil.
Where does a lot of that oil go to? Try the United States of America, which gets more crude from Canada than any other single country. And as unconventional oil sands — which have a larger greenhouse-gas footprint than conventional crude — in Alberta continue to grow, so will Canada’s carbon emissions. A report released earlier this year by Environment Canada forecast that greenhouse-gas emissions from oil sands will triple to 92 million metric tons by 2020 from a base level of 30 million metric tons in 2005. Essentially, when Canada decided to fully exploit the oil sands of Alberta — a certainty once Alberta native Stephen Harper became Prime Minister — it abandoned any possibility of meeting Kyoto.
Canada is still a long way from becoming a real petro-state, like a Saudi Arabia or an Iran. It still has a diversified economy, and oil and natural gas — as important as they are — make up a little more than 3% of Canada’s GDP, compared with more than 11% of the economy in a true petro-state like Venezuela. What’s more, many Canadians do care about climate change and the environment — including at the political level, where provinces like British Columbia and Quebec have introduced carbon taxes. But with oil and gas prices still booming — and oil-sands development continuing, even in the face of the controversy over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. — fossil fuels have a strong grip on the Canadian economy and the Canadian political scene. Bill McKibben of put it bluntly in a conference call today: “The Canadian government is a wing of the oil industry.” As long as that’s the case, Canada will remain a laggard on international climate action — and nothing the rest of the world says is likely to change that.

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Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.