JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Canada is formally withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, the world's only legally binding treaty on climate change.

The announcement by Canadian environment minister Peter Kent comes just a day after UN climate talks, known as COP 17, concluded in Durban, South Africa.

"Kyoto, for Canada, is in the past, and as such we are invoking our legal right to withdraw from Kyoto," Kent said, CBC News reported.

By withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol before the end of 2011, Canada will save than estimated $14 billion in penalties for failing to meet emissions reduction targets, Kent told CBC.

Canada is the first country to pull out of the Kyoto treaty.

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During the two-week summit, Kent refused to confirm or deny media reports that Canada had planned to pull out of the Kyoto accord by the end of the year. Canada faced widespread criticism over its stance on climate change issues throughout the Durban conference, including from South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Chinese government.

Kent told a press briefing in Durban that he had promised UN climate chief Christiana Figueres "no unfortunate surprises" during the climate talks — but he stonewalled when asked whether Canada would quit Kyoto in the weeks that follow the summit.

In a statement released Tuesday, Figueres said:

"I regret that Canada has announced it will withdraw and am surprised over its timing. Whether or not Canada is a party to the Kyoto Protocol, it has a legal obligation under the convention to reduce its emissions, and a moral obligation to itself and future generations to lead in the global effort."  

Canada signed Kyoto in the late 1990s under a Liberal government, but neither the Liberals nor the current Conservative government have met targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, the Canadian Press said.

In Durban, negotiators from more than 190 countries agreed to work towards a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto accord, which expires at the end of 2012.

But the Durban deal falls far short of creating a mandate for ambitious emissions cuts. Instead countries agreed to work towards "a protocol, legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force," which is to be adopted no later than 2015 but won't come into force until after 2020.

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