How Canada has changed since the 1992 Rio summit

[This article originally appeared on maribo, author retains copyright]

To really understand how much Canada – and the world – has changed, its worth comparing the Canadian government summary of the original 1992 Earth Summit to its submission to the 20th anniversary summit held in Rio last week. I looked through these a few days ago while preparing some thoughts for CBC Radio’s BC Almanac discussion of Canada and Rio+20.

The broad history is well known. In 1992, Canada was seen as a leader, arguably the leader, on environmental issues at the international level, particularly issues related to the atmosphere. Canada had come off a decade during which it hosted the famous Montreal summit that led to a ban on CFCs (Montreal Protocol), hosted a groundbreaking climate change summit in which the government urged international efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions, and pushed the US extremely hard to deal with the sulphur dioxide emissions which were causing acid rain. Much of this happened under a Conservative government that was reviled at the time by people on the political left at the time as the most right wing in Canadian history. Canadian Maurice Strong was even selected to be the Secretary General of the Rio Earth Summit.

The five point agenda laid out by then PM Brian Mulroney, seen above with Jacques Cousteau at Rio in 1992, was forward-looking, environmentally-minded, and beyond anything, internationalist. The goals were to help developing nations formulate plans, to ratify international conventions, to take action on international aid and related debt, to integrate sustainability into the goals of all existing international institutions, and to pursue an Earth Charter.

Fast-forward twenty years and you find a changed Canada, but also a changed world. Canadians negotiators went into the Rio+20 summit arguing for only voluntary initiatives in the final document, “green” growth indicators which wereintensity-based, no new international organizations or institutions be created (arguably defensible given the overhead), and less focus on providing financial and technical aid to the developing world. The Canadian government hoped to shift the focus instead two issues: energy and the oceans. Energy is obviously in the Canadian interest. Oceans did get more attention at Rio+20, but Canada actually voted against the proposed plan to create a system for protecting the open ocean from exploitation.

People like to blame all this solely on our current government. Certainly, the Conservative majority government is responsible for tilting Canada inward and avoiding any concrete policy action on issues like climate change. The times have also changed.

We have to be careful waxing nostalgic about the original Earth Summit. The bar was much lower in 1992. The world was just beginning to grasp the global issues like climate change and declining biodiversity. Creating the organization and setting goals was an accomplishment.

Now, that’s not enough. People expect action. Agreeing to binding targets is a lot more difficult, politically, than agreeing to create an organization that will talk about binding targets. The final document from Rio+20 contained only vague platitudes and commitments. Much of this stems from the reluctance of major players, certainly including Canada, to accept any responsibility for things like atmospheric pollution. But some stems from what the leaders of those countries have learned in the past twenty years. Many people in power, including I’ll guess PM Stephen Harper, have watched the supposed big accomplishment of the 1992 summit fail to achieve any environmental progress. They might not care about the lack of environmental progress; regardless they have seen the flaws in using international policy to address environmental concerns.

For example, the journal Nature just gave failing grades to the three signature UN conventions that came out of Rio: the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention to Combat Desertification and the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). To illustrate just how poorly these conventions have fared, I’d actually give the UNFCCC, the origin of the Kyoto Protocol and much worldwide hand-wringing about rapidly rising greenhouse gas emissions, the highest grade of the three. At least the UNFCCC has been reasonably successful in developing a GHG emissions reporting system, no small feat, and might succeed in securing substantial financing for climate change projects in the developing world (incidentally, the developing world was still referred to as the “Third World” in the 1992 Earth Summit; like I said, times have really changed).

The lack of international progress on climate change, biodiversity and other issues since Rio does provide a reasonable argument for Canada and other nations to shy away from further international commitments: no new institutions, no new targets, and all initiatives tied to national economic growth.

That’s why it might be a mistake to characterise that attitude of the Canadian government as simply anti-environment. It is more than that: it is anti-international. Twenty years ago, Canada was pursing issues that were in the international good as well as the Canadian good. We have since turned inward. At Rio+20, Canada’s focused entirely on Canada’s own good. Hence the lack of progress on climate policy. Our current government has determined that resource exploitation is more important – for Canada – than addressing climate change.


  1. You`re a bit too kind, Simon - rather than say `It is more than that: it is anti-international`, I`d say `It is worse than that: it is anti-international`. Never give these guys a break.
    Interesting to note how an environmentalist could, in good conscience, vote Tory back in the 80s, and how that`s really no longer possible.

  2. These people bear no more resemblance to Tories than American Republicans do to the Enlightenment-influenced founders of America they claim to revere.

    It's fascinating how these opposing positions have converged without any complaint, though, isn't it? Soi-disant "conservatives" never bat an eyelash about the affinity of purported Tories and purported Libertarians.

    It is neither a love of liberty nor a love of patrimony that actually animates them, obviously. I am not sure what it is that unites these former opposites, but I suspect it has the letter $ in it.

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