Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol affects developing nations

By Alys Granados

Following negotiations at a United Nations climate change summit in Durban, South Africa, Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent announced Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 United Nations treaty requiring member nations to stabilize their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions below 1990 levels. The goal was to curb the effects of climate change and while the Liberal government ratified the treaty in 2002, it was clear that GHG reduction targets would not be met by the original 2012 deadline. Canada is now among the few developed nations not signed on to Protocol.

Aside from targets to stabilize and reduce GHG emissions, the treaty required industrialized nations to financially assist developing nations in establishing climate change mitigation strategies. Canada’s withdrawal from Kyoto, thus, not only affects domestic CO2 emission levels, but also has important implications for developing nations. This is especially true for African nations south of the Sahara, a region predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to be most vulnerable to effects of a warming climate. Problems are further exacerbated by the inability to adapt to such changes.

During talks in Durban and prior to Kent’s announcement, several African leaders, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, publicly encouraged the Canadian government to renew its commitment to Kyoto due to the consequences of climate change for Africa’s people. Many of these consequences are already being seen and relate to food security.  

Lake Tanganyika, for example, is the second largest freshwater body in the world and its species provide an important source of animal protein for people of its bordering nations (Tanzania, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Zambia).  However, a 2003 study in Nature by University of Arizona researchers found that warming temperatures had led to a decline in the lake’s productivity (a measure of energy flow through the food chain). This, in turn, resulted in lower fish yields. This effect of climate change on fish catch is estimated to be more severe than overfishing and can reduce food security for the many people who rely on the Lake.

Climate change is also leading to more erratic rainfall patterns and extreme weather events, including droughts. This affects the approximately two thirds of people in the sub-Sahara who rely on agriculture for employment and subsistence. Declines in food productivity and food security due to reduced rainfall have led to greater incidence of malnutrition and malnutrition related deaths. This was seen in Kenya, where a 2008 study published in Global Environmental Change found that children born during drought years were 50% more likely to be malnourished, due to reduced food security caused by droughts.

Meanwhile, coastal regions are at greater risk of experiencing floods. Heavier rainfall is now more common in Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique, according to a 2004 study in Climate Research.  This too has consequences for human health, as the greater presence of stagnant and contaminated water after flooding facilitates the spread of malaria and cholera.

The way in which the Canada and other developed nations choose to deal with climate change will have global ramifications. As African governments and organizations work to mitigate the effects of climate change, developed nations must also play a role. This is especially crucial, given their contribution to global CO2 emissions, relative to that of Africa, and highlights the importance of the Kyoto Protocol not just for Canada, but also for the world.


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