LONDON Canada still has a legal obligation under United Nations rules to cut its emissions despite the country's pullout from the Kyoto Protocol, the U.N. climate chief said on Tuesday.
Christiana Figueres also said the timing of Canada's move, a day after a deal to extend the protocol was clinched at a U.N. summit in South Africa, was regrettable and surprising.
Canada on Monday withdraw from Kyoto, dealing a symbolic blow to the treaty, with environment minister Peter Kent breaking the news just after his return from talks in Durban.
"Whether or not Canada is a party to the Kyoto Protocol, it has a legal obligation under the (U.N. framework on climate change) convention to reduce its emissions, and a moral obligation to itself and future generations to lead in the global effort," Figueres said.
Canada, a major energy producer which critics say is becoming a climate renegade, has long complained Kyoto is unworkable because it excludes so many significant emitters.
Industrialized countries whose emissions have risen significantly since 1990, like Canada, remain in a weaker position to call on developing countries to limit their emissions, Figueres said.
"I regret that Canada has announced it will withdraw and am surprised over its timing," Figueres said in a statement.
On Sunday, more than 190 countries agreed to extend Kyoto for at least five years and hammered out a new deal forcing all big polluters for the first time to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
Kyoto's first phase, due to expire at the end of next year but now extended until 2017, imposed limits only on developed countries, not emerging giants such as China and India. The United States never ratified it.
The Canadian government said it would be subject to penalties equivalent to C$14 billion ($13.6 billion) under the terms of the treaty for not cutting emissions by the required amount by 2012.
China and Japan said on Tuesday that Canada's decision was regrettable and called on it to continue to abide by its commitments on climate change.
Closer to home, reactions were divided. Mexican Environment Minister Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada asked Kent to reconsider his decision, saying the withdrawal could create "despair" among countries.
"What the world needs now is to work on a system of global cooperation to meet the objectives that give a message of hope to humanity, especially those who are currently suffering the impacts of climate change," he said.
Todd Stern, the U.S. special climate envoy, said Canada's decision should have little impact on negotiations on a future pact that would include binding cuts on developed and developing countries.
"I don't think it's going to have a big impact on the shape of a new regime and the nature of the new negotiations," Stern told reporters on Tuesday.
Figueres said the Durban agreement to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol is essential "for the new push towards a universal, legal climate agreement in the near future".
(Reporting by Nina Chestney; Additional reporting by Timothy Gardner and Valerie Volcovici in Washington, Editing by Alessandra Rizzo and Dale Hudson)