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Summit this week to show cooling trend on warming targets

Since the Rio Earth Summit 20 years ago, the politics of saving the planet have moved full circle. In 1992, the world was four years into the era of global warming. When world leaders meet in Rio this week, it will be 2½ years after the collapse of attempts to agree to a global cap on greenhouse emissions at the December 2009 Copenhagen climate talks.

No country illustrates this more dramatically than Canada — a case of first in, first out. More than any other country, Canadians took the lead in formulating the ideas that became “sustainable development” — the most successful political-branding exercise of the last half century.

The genesis of sustainable development goes back to 1972 and the first UN conference on the environment at Stockholm. Canada’s Maurice Strong was appointed to head the preparations for it after the Swedish government feared the conference was heading for disaster. Developing countries prioritized their economic development and felt threatened by Western environmentalism, as it might infringe their sovereignty and constrain their development.

After Strong got wind of a potential Third World boycott, he convened a seminar of leading thinkers from the development movement. Together they thrashed out the basis for an accommodation between environmentalism and the Third World’s development ambitions: Economic growth is good for the environment of poor countries but bad for the environment of rich ones. Sustainable development had something for both: sustainability for the greens, development for the developing world. That it harbored a fundamental contradiction was not in the interests of either to explore.

It did the trick. The Third World came. Thanks to Strong’s persistence, Indira Gandhi gave the keynote speech at Stockholm. From then on, the global environmental agenda has been tied to the economic agenda of developing nations. It received a further boost with the North-South Brandt report of the early 1980s and was the central message of the 1987 Brundtland report of the World Commission on Environment and Development.

Other than Brundtland herself (a past and future prime minister of Norway), the commission had a distinctly Canadian feel; as well as Strong, who was on the commission, Jim MacNeill, a key participant in the pre-Stockholm seminars, was its secretary. The report lists all the people and organizations that made submissions. There were 77 from Scandinavia and Finland, 35 from the U.S. and 51 from the Soviet Union. The Third World was well represented, including 96 from Indonesia and 88 from Brazil. But one country, Canada, stood out with 207 including from societies and clubs, environmental organizations and governments, academics and students. No other country was as deeply involved. (By contrast, there were precisely zero from Australia and New Zealand.)

1987 and 1988 might be said to constitute Canada’s most singular impact on world affairs. In 1988, it was Canada’s turn to host the G7 summit. Prime minister Brian Mulroney was adamant about making sustainable development a key issue. The Toronto G7 endorsed the Brundtland report and the concept of sustainable development. It was quite an achievement for Mulroney to get Ronald Reagan, attending his last G7, to sign up to sustainable development and the Brundtland report with its doctrine of giving priority to the needs of the poor at its core.

Eight days after the G7, Mulroney and Brundtland hosted the Toronto climate conference. Alarmism was the order of the day. It produced scary forecasts of temperature rises and claimed that the threat from global warming ranked just behind nuclear war. The conference called on developed nations to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions by 20% by 2005.

From then on, a distinct cooling trend set in along with greater wariness about committing to the tough emissions targets being championed by the Europeans. In 1990, a leak to Friends of the Earth forced Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard to disavow any intention of Canada aligning itself with the U.S. to oppose targets and timetables. As a result, it swung behind the Europeans. In 2002, Jean Chrétien had to heavily whip the Kyoto Protocol through the House of Commons.

After President George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol (which anyway had no chance of being ratified by the U.S. Senate), Canada used its enhanced bargaining position to punch holes through the Kyoto Protocol and claimed vast credits for its exports of hydro power to the U.S. Even so, Canada’s CO2 emissions rose faster than America’s (26% versus 16%).

The Harper government sat on the sidelines at the Copenhagen climate talks as the Europeans got rolled by U.S. President Barack Obama into accepting the toothless accord that he had negotiated with India, China, South Africa and Brazil. Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, announced at the end of 2011, delivered the coup de grâce. In public, China and India condemned Canada’s move, but it let them completely off the hook. It is their long-standing position that they will not contemplate mandatory caps until the developed world has first delivered its obligations under Kyoto and any successor. Now they never will.

So the world is left debating sustainable development, a nebulous concept at best. At the 1992 Earth Summit, the “Agenda 21” document set out how sustainable development was to be implemented across the world. It was described to me by Brazil’s environment minister at the time as an “NGO fantasy,” which is what the world’s largest gathering of leaders will be discussing in Rio this week.

Rupert Darwall is author of “Global Warming: A Short History,” forthcoming from Quartet Books.

Financial Post, 20 June 2012