OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada dismissed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change on Monday as a thing of the past, but declined to confirm a media report it will formally pull out of the international treaty before the end of this year.
Although the Conservative government walked away from its Kyoto obligations years ago, a formal withdrawal would deal a symbolic blow to global talks to save the agreement, which opened in Durban, South Africa on Monday.
Canada says it backs a new global deal to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, but insists it has to cover all nations, including China and India, which are not bound by Kyoto's current targets.
Although Japan and Russia share Canada's view, and the United States never ratified Kyoto, no nation has yet formally renounced the treaty.
"Kyoto is the past," Environment Minister Peter Kent told reporters in Ottawa, describing the decision by Canada's previous Liberal government to sign on to the protocol as "one of the biggest blunders they made."
The Conservatives - who green groups say are recklessly pushing development of the Alberta oil sands and ignoring the environment - complain the Liberals signed Kyoto and then did nothing to stop the country's emissions from soaring.
"What we know is that we cannot comply with it ... that's a fact," Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver told reporters.
CTV News said Ottawa would announce its formal withdrawal from Kyoto on December 23, once the Durban talks are over.
"I'm neither confirming or denying (the report)," said Kent, who announced Canada would spend C$600 million ($583 million) over the next five years to help improve air quality.
Peter Julian of the New Democrats said Kent's presence at Durban would be a total charade.
"He's going to go there to obstruct, bury progress, derail the discussions and act like an environmental vandal," Julian told the House of Commons.
Canada has long been the focus of environmentalists' ire and regularly wins "Fossil of the Day" awards at major international meetings.
"Countries should be asking themselves why Canada is sitting at the Kyoto negotiating table with a secret plan to formally withdraw from the protocol mere weeks after the talks end. This move is a slap in the face to the international community ... Shame on Canada," said Hannah McKinnon of Climate Action Network Canada.
Kent said the government - which has close ties to Western Canada's energy industry - wanted to meet its climate change commitments, but added that "we're not going to strand capital, we're not going to threaten jobs in any of the sectors".
Kyoto obliged Canada to cut emissions to 6 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. In 2009, Canada emitted 690 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, 17 percent above 1990 levels, largely because of an increase in oil extraction from the vast oil sands of northern Alberta.
The Conservatives subsequently adopted less ambitious targets and now say Canada will cut greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
"We need a new agreement, a post-Kyoto agreement, that includes all of the major emitting countries, whether they be developed countries or developing countries," said Kent.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson