A day after the close of marathon climate talks in Durban, South Africa, Canada announced it will be the first nation to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, the world’s only binding climate agreement.

While both Japan and Russia have said they won’t accept new Kyoto commitments, Canada is the only country (out of 192) to formally pull out of the 1997 agreement to reduce global warming.

The announcement, made by Environment Minister Peter Kent on Monday, is a sad stumble backward for Canada and a blow to global efforts to slow climate change. But it’s not entirely surprising either.

Canada leans heavily on profits from the energy sector and has one of the world’s highest greenhouse gas emission rates per capita. Since the Conservative government took office in 2006, it has said it has no intention of meeting its Kyoto targets, warning that our commitment to reversing climate change would stifle the economy.

The reality is that there is no either or when it comes to the environment and the economy. The environment is the engine that powers national and global financial systems, providing most of the materials we need to drive it.

If we think taking action to reduce climate change is costly, consider this: Canada’s National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy predicted that by 2050, a warmer planet could cost Canada between $21 billion and $43 billion per year. That’s a lot more than the $14 billion Kent said he hopes to save by dodging our climate commitments under Kyoto.

By formally withdrawing from Kyoto and refusing to sign on for a second round of commitments, Canada has severely weakened the treaty and turned its back on the global community and its citizens. Furthermore, abandoning Kyoto flies in the face of the Government of Canada’s stated commitment to finding real solutions to climate change.

News of Canada’s withdrawal made international headlines and has drawn pointed criticism from other countries. The United Kingdom characterized the move as “deeply regrettable” while an official from India said Canada’s decision could undermine the gains made at the Durban conference.

Perhaps most poignant was the reaction from the tiny island nation of Tuvalu, which at just 4.5 metres above sea level at its highest point, is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels caused by climate change. The country’s lead negotiator summed up Canada’s actions in Durban as “an act of sabotage on our future …Withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol is a reckless and totally irresponsible act.”

At Ecojustice, we know that no one country can stop climate change on its own, but we believe that together, the world can try to reverse it. This is why Kyoto is so important. It is a lead-by-example commitment by the world’s leading nations to assume responsibility for our planet’s future.

Countries around the world look to Canada for leadership, but this week, Canada failed to deliver where it counts the most. Instead of seizing the opportunity to set an example on reversing climate change, Canada has decided to lead the way to the exits.