Cold as Ice: Why It Matters That the Canadian Government is Backing Out of UN Climate Change Efforts

by Jacob Patterson-Stein

At the end of March, while answering questions in the House of Commons, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper calmly explained why he was stopping payments to an organization that, in his words, “spends less than 20 percent of the funds that we send […] on programming.” At a time when governments everywhere are feeling the urge to justify spending, it is not surprising that representatives cheered after the PM’s brief statement. What caught many international observers off guard, however, was the organization to which Harper was referring: the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). Indeed, even the UN was surprised to learn that Canada was withdrawing from the Convention and reportedly only found out about Ottawa’s decision after being reached for comment by Canadian press.

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird referred to the Convention as a “talk-fest.” The conservative government has said it is not giving up on combating desertification but feels the UN is wasting taxpayer money with little to show for it. Does it matter that the home of hockey has backed out of a non-binding agreement of questionable enforceability? It does, and not just for Canada. Ottawa’s actions will have an effect on countries most threatened by climate change, will set a precedent for free-riding, and says a lot about how the UN functions.

Conventions—the preferred mode of aggregating consensus into a formal statement at the United Nations—seem to garner the most attention, not for what they aim to achieve, but when they are ignored. Child labor, piracy, and discriminatory education systems? Yep, there’s a convention for those. Convention violators are often comprised of a predictable list of global no-goodniks and failed states, who themselves are generally (but not always) signatories to the very conventions they are violating. Despite being light on consequences and heavy on symbolism, the convention system is a proven platform for bringing disparate actors together in broad agreement on fundamental issues. That framework provides a starting point for international law, policy, and relations between and within states.

This is what makes Canada’s decision to leave the Convention to Combat Desertification notable.

Superficial Symbolism

In its response to Canada, the UNCCD noted that Canada “is frequently subjected to drought and where 60 percent of the cropland is in dry areas.” It also noted that, due to its susceptibility, the country has been a leader in addressing the threat of climate change to areas prone to drought.

The UNCCD was the result of the Rio Summit in 1992 and entered into force in 1996 with 195 countries and the EU signing on. The 58-page Convention aims to “forge a global partnership to reverse and prevent desertification/land degradation and to mitigate the effects of drought in affected areas in order to support poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.” Canada contributed 290,644 dollars (CAD/around 284,831 USD) to the UNCCD in 2011, which is just over 3 percent of the Convention’s budget, but, in a press release, the UNCCD noted that it will also no longer have access to the technical support Canada provides and fosters.

Canada, as the world’s 14th largest economy, will likely be able to adjust to future climate trends. Yet, desertification is already having severe consequences around the world. The World Bank reports that over 250 million people are currently affected by desertification, which is growing worse due to climate change. With 75 percent of the world’s poor relying on agriculture, temperature changes disproportionally affect the least well off.

In its 2012 Global Monitoring Report, the World Bank notes that food price shocks pushed nearly 50 million people into poverty in 2011. More specifically, the demand for water in the Middle East and North Africa is expected to rise by 25 percent in the period 2020-2030, despite declining supply. Such a rise will further exacerbate local markets in a region where 13 percent of regional GDP is from agriculture—about 2 percent of GDP in Jordan, but as much as 30 percent in Sudan.

Climate change presents very real political economy problems as well. A recent report from the Center for American Progress finds that a “once-in-a-century winter drought in China contributed to global wheat shortages and skyrocketing bread prices in Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer,” which likely exacerbated pre-existing civil tension.

Aside from the humanitarian, economic, and political issues that climate change and desertification present, Harper’s decision to pull out of the UNCCD comes before an important meeting in Bonn, Germany, where the UN itself is expected to address how to respond to climate change more efficiently.

The UNCCD Conference and Committee Meetings kicked off on April 9th, and it is the first attempt by the UNCCD to present a cost-benefit analysis of desertification efforts. The Conference theme, “Economic assessment of desertification, sustainable land management and resilience of arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas,” suggests that the very problems Harper expressed before the House of Commons are going to be addressed by the UNCCD itself. The organization has released two pre-conference white papers about the economics of desertification, the goals of the Bonn Conference, the tools for quantifying both the financial and social benefits, the need to standardize economics measures, and the costs of climate change. The pre-conference reports estimate that 3-5 percent of global GDP is lost through land degradation, that 40 percent of the world’s population currently lives in dry lands, and that desertification currently affects 168 countries. Additionally, for the first time, the conference will present the largest amount of data on poverty and land provided by member governments.

Of course, talking about methods and cost-benefit models is different from actually learning from the methods and models. There is no guarantee that the Bonn meeting will be more than a “talk-fest,” even if it is a scientifically grounded, economically focused fest. But this is where Canada has a chance to follow-up on input from previous meetings and push attendees on their goals of improving monitoring and assessment of UNCCD programming.

A Path Toward Independence or Isolation?

Critics of the Harper Government say this is just another act of climate change denial by the Conservative prime minister. This is not the first time that Ottawa has vocally questioned the UN. Last May, Conservative members of parliament criticized the UN for sending Special Rapporteur for Food Olivier De Schutter to Canada to investigate food insecurity in the country. In addition, the Harper Government has cut the number of Canadians participating in UN Peacekeeping missions and has been a constant critic of the UN Security Council’s decisions regarding Syria, despite or perhaps in spite of repeated attempts to join the Council.

Canada’s public decision brings to light what many have expressed privately: the UN and UN Conventions use resources in the slowest, most inefficient way possible. Margaret Wente, a conservative columnist for Canada’s Globe and Mail, recently cited endemic inertia at the UN generally, and UNCCD specifically, as reason enough to pull out.   It is possible that the Harper government will take its recently freed 300,000 dollar fee and put it toward a program that will make full use of the funds. But this misses the point.

The UN, as a member organization, must act slowly, must attempt to achieve consensus, and must work toward stated interests as well as those of its constituents. It is the only broad-based organization that has global reach to address the quintessential global public goods problem: climate change. PM Harper’s decision comes at a time when the importance of data and evaluation is gaining mainstream traction, when the economics of desertification are being understood for their general effects across sectors and countries, and when the consequences of climate change are growing more extreme. Even if the Canadian Government, through CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency) comes up with a better program, it will not have the global sanction required to scale up and deal with a problem that is not confined within borders.

Canada’s decision to withdraw from the UNCCD matters because it undermines the very cooperation required to adequately address climate change. Is the Harper Government’s decision the biggest blow for climate science? No. At a time when the UN is actively making a point to make its programming more economically efficient, however, PM Harper’s rationale seems a little over-heated.

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