Canada’s recent decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol irks me. It irks me because, as a Kenyan – Canadian, it is a poor reflection of the values our society purports to have, the values that once made Canadians well-respected, defenders of human rights. It is no secret that the decision was almost entirely motivated by financial and political pressures. However, Peter Kent, the Environment Minister, a man who recently failed to articulate what the ozone layer was, claims that the Kyoto Protocol is bad for Canada. I am really not sure what metric of success Mr. Kent is using but unfortunately if we are not part of the solution we are certainly part of the problem. Canada is now the only country in the G8 to actually increase our emissions over the period of the Protocol. What is ‘bad’ for Canada should be more accurately and succinctly be put as ‘bad for the Conservative government and the deep pockets of the oil-rushers’ in northern Alberta. Our failure to meet our obligations under the Kyoto Protocol is not only a national embarrassment, but it also means that we are actually actively undermining many of the ideals which we as Canadians claim we support.
The Kyoto Protocol
I am not going to tell you that the Kyoto Protocol is perfect because it is not. However, it is the best tool we have, and has been continually refined over almost two decades. In Europe for example, it has been very successful in many parts of the world at reducing the emissions generated from industrial processes, transport, and promoting reforestation. More recently, the promise of mechanisms such as REDD, can help to augment those successes by articulating the financial resources of the developed world, with developing countries, that host significant forest resources in return for “credits”. Although these REDD credits are not yet applicable to compliance oriented targets, future iterations of the agreements such as Kyoto will likely allow for REDD credits to be applied towards compliance. Ironically, this concept was actually birthed in Canada at the CoP 11 in Montreal. Through mechanisms like REDD, the developing world can receive the funding they need to protect tropical forests from which we all benefit, as these forests act to recycle significant amounts of CO2 emissions. Under the current Kyoto obligations, by the end of 2012, Canada would owe roughly $14 billion in penalties, having missed all of our compliance emissions targets. In the future iterations of the Protocol, those penalties will most likely go directly towards purchasing REDD credits from projects which not only provide massive sustainable forest management benefits, but also multiple co-benefits such as poverty reduction and biodiversity conservation. However, instead, we have simply decided to abandon Kyoto, the only country EVER to sign, ratify and subsequently abandon the legally binding agreement. Our excuse? It is too expensive and we must concentrate on our economy…
I was recently a caller on a talk radio show in eastern Canada discussing climate change. The radio presenter was asking callers to convince him that climate change was real (yes, there are still some deniers out there). What surprised me was the bulk of the callers actually believed that climate change is made up and that it was a scam to make money. A second, and possibly more important part of the debate revolved around the question of whether or not Canada was right to pull out of Kyoto. Most people agreed that Canada was indeed right and “why should we give money for climate change mitigation when we don’t emit that much?” or “The Chinese emit way more than we do…”. Now, I realize that radio call-in shows are not the best gauge of public opinion in Canada. However, what struck me is that if many Canadians are so unsure as to whether or not the climate is indeed changing, and furthermore, whether or not we are to blame, then is it not easier than ever to effectively ‘pull the wool over our eyes’? Could it be that that is exactly what is happening? At it’s best this is short-term thinking, at its worst, it is an abuse of human rights. If you feel I am getting fired up, than just wait.
Many people raise confusing arguments about Canada’s contribution to the world of emissions. There are some confusing numbers out there as well. However, in response to those that claim Canada is not a “big emitter”, we are not, in gross terms. However, we have a tiny population and yet our emissions per capita are some of the highest in the world.
Others claim that China emits way more so why should they get a free ride? China does emit more, again in gross terms. But there are two reasons not to take that statistic at face value: 1) there are 1.3 billion Chinese (of course they have greater emissions) and 2) many of those emissions are created running factories to build cheap stuff for North Americans.
Other people have raised the idea that Kyoto Protocol has failed to get these big emitters on board and that they are in effect getting a “free ride”. Yes, the Kyoto Protocol has failed to get big emitters on board, the US in particular. Although the US originally signed the protocol, it was never ratified by the legislative branch. Other big emitters are not currently on board but will be in the future. China, India, Brazil and others are only enjoying a “free ride” in so much as we have had a “free ride” for the past 150 years. In fact, under future iterations of the Kyoto protocol, their free ride would be much shorter than ours.
Human Induced Climate Change
I believe that the climate is changing on the earth and that we, as a human race are responsible for much of that change. I am not a climatologist, but I am a social scientist and human nature is often easier to predict than we think. We are selfish and we don’t like to know we messed things up. In particular industrialized societies have generated billions of tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalents) which have acted to exacerbate the greenhouse effect causing an increase in atmospheric carbon from roughly 280ppm in 1750 to roughly 380ppm now, an era that corresponds exactly to the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent fossil-fuel driven growth that has defined our times. The correlation is undeniable. Furthermore, climate change is not something that can be forecast effectively and so there are bound to be mistakes in some of the models. Nothing of this scope has ever been encountered by humankind and so, although the science is rigorous, there will inevitably be mistakes in prediction. However, that is not to say that the science is debatable. It simply isn’t. Science is a tool and inherently neutral. But I want to push this envelope slightly further by taking the emphasis off of the forecasting and predictions of climate change, so hotly debated by North Americans, and bring it back to the present tense. Climate change is already having devastating impacts on many parts of the world. You can debate it until you are blue in the face if you would like to, but the truth is that major emitters per capita such as Canada are having a catastrophic impact on people in other areas of the world.
The Current Impacts of our Emissions
It is no secret that scarcity causes conflict. Whether that conflict is a bargain sale at the local Best Buy, or something much more basic such as access to clean water or food, conflict is, sadly, often the result of competition over something scarce. Most of us know this inherently but few of us actually realize our role in promulgating such scarcities in the wider world today. If we knew that we were causing conflict, even indirectly, would we change?
In my work and private life, I have had the privilege of spending some time in places like Darfur and the Horn of Africa over the last two decades. During this time, I have seen firsthand the impacts of a changing climate on the lives of those most vulnerable with increasingly erratic rainfall, failures in crops and loss of livestock, loss of livelihoods, deepening conflicts and poorly implemented responses to those conflicts. Climate change has been, and continues to be, one of the most devastating drivers of conflict and human suffering in the world today. Paradoxically, the people caught up in the conflicts are people that have the lowest ecological footprint in the world. Ban Ki Moon, when speaking about the Darfur conflict, puts it bluntly in a 2007 Washington Post article “Almost invariably, we discuss Darfur in a convenient military and political shorthand – an ethnic conflict pitting Arab militias against black rebels and farmers. Look to its roots, though, and you discover a more complex dynamic. Amid the diverse social and political causes, the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis, arising at least in part from climate change”.
I recently watched an excellent short documentary by Al Jazeera linking the increasingly severe conflicts in northern and northeastern Kenya directly to the failure of climate change mitigation efforts in developed countries. I encourage you to watch it is as well. Seldom are my thoughts and investigations put as coherently as this short documentary.
The Government of Canada’s decision to pull out of the obligations inherent in the Kyoto Protocol is disturbing to me because it represents the insidious deterioration of transparency and global leadership that Canada once showed. Mr. Kent explicitly highlighted that Canada did not want to spend $14 billion buying credits to make up for the emissions targets that we have missed, mainly because of our ever-growing bitumen mining exercises in northern Alberta. Instead, Canada seems content to continue to pump foreign aid to the tune of $5.335 billion in 2009-10 in to places like eastern Africa’s Horn with hopes of bringing stability to the region, attempting to mitigate conflict but certainly not carbon. Interestingly, CIDA, Canada’s International Development Agency, claims that one of their three priority, cross-cutting themes is “environmental sustainability”.
As a Canadian, it irks me to know that we are no longer part of the solution, but rather only part of the problem. Our excuses for being part of that problem are nothing more than financial. Our emissions, and our subsequent failure to prioritize mitigating those emissions, are having directly harmful and negative impacts on other people in the world, human beings that we purport to defend the rights of. We find ourselves instead, embroiled in silly arguments as to whether or not climate change is even real while our government serves the interests of a few hyper-emitting industries. Climate change is indeed a current reality. I am sorry to say Mr. Kent, but without meaningful carbon emissions reductions, inherent in the Kyoto Protocol, than all the aid money in the world will not reverse the damage our emissions are doing to the lives of those in East Africa.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
— Martin Luther King Jr., 1963, Letter from a Birmingham Jail