Canada's Oil Sands Kill Africans, Says Greenpeace Leader

Rich nations owe 'climate debt' to poorer countries hit by drought, wars: Naidoo.

By David Beers 30 Nov 2011 |

David Beers is editor of The Tyee.

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Canada's 'tragedy': Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo

Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo, who grew up in South Africa where the Durban summit on climate change is underway, says Canada's commitment to developing the Alberta oil sands is killing Africans.

Naidoo made the statement during an interview held at the Vancouver offices of The Tyee in September, in which he also touched on the political might of the fossil fuels lobby, China's green ambitions and Vancouver's geographic advantage.

Well into the conversation, Naidoo said the oil sands make it impossible for Canada to meet its Kyoto climate treaty promises, or even the more modest targets the Conservative government has set for greenhouse gas emissions reductions.

"The tragedy about this whole issue for somebody like myself coming from Africa is that the people who are least responsible for the climate chaos -- because they're poor, they don't drive cars, they don't have fridges, microwaves and so on -- are the ones that are paying the first and the most brutal price," said Naidoo.

He said climate change was creating more deserts and starvation in Africa, and water scarcity that helped drive the "the genocide in Darfur in Sudan." Studies show "about 350,000 people are dying annually in the developing world as a result of climate change impacts," said Naidoo.

Asked if he was saying Canada bore responsibility for those Africans' deaths because of the oil sands, Naidoo responded: "If you want to strip it down, that's the reality. I wouldn't say Canada is the only country. And I think the blame is never to be put on the Canadian people or even the American people. It is a failure of governance on the part of those that have the responsibility to lead, and so I would say yes."

'In pocket of powerful interests'

Naidoo said Canada's government has allowed the fossil fuels industry to have too much clout over national policies. "When Stephen Harper goes to Copenhagen and climate negotiations, when he goes to the G20 in Toronto and so on, he has in tow the CEO of Suncor." He said Prime Minister Harper was like former U.S. president George W. Bush in "being in the pocket of powerful interests." Bush's presidency was "bought lock, stock and barrel by the oil industry," said Naidoo, adding that he saw Harper in the same light.

Canada agreed to Kyoto's five-year greenhouse gas emission reduction targets that are destined to expire at the end of next year. The Conservative government has been clear since coming to power they it has no intention of complying with the agreement it says is unfair, but neither did it seek to formally withdraw from the treaty. Now CTV is reporting that Canada intends to do just that within a month's time, though Environment Minister Peter Kent will neither confirm nor deny the report.

The Durban summit aims to craft a new global agreement on emissions reductions to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which placed the heaviest restraints on wealthier nations. Canada joins Japan and Russia in seeking a different framework that applies the same rules to all emitters, including less developed countries including China, India and Brazil.

"Kyoto is in the past," said Kent on Monday, to the outrage of NDP Opposition MP Peter Julian, who said Kent "is going to act like an environmental vandal" at the Durban talks.

'Climate debt' owed

During his interview with The Tyee, Naidoo called Canada's failure to lead in combating climate change "a tragedy" that tarnishes its previous, hard-won reputation in poorer countries as a nation "that stands for human rights, that stands for the environment."

Canada owes "a climate debt to the developing world," said Naidoo. "When we say that rich countries have to put money into a green climate fund to help poor countries to adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change, we are not asking for charity, we're asking for the developed countries to actually compensate poor countries for the impacts that are happening."

Naidoo's travels as Greenpeace leader have taken him to the oil sands, and also places he thinks present more positive alternatives.

Recent meetings with Chinese leaders convinced Naidoo they had grave concerns about climate change and were tooling their economy in response. The world's most populous nation, he pointed out, is already the largest investor in renewable technology. "They were very, very clear that if China is going to move at the fastest possible pace to move from being the second largest economy in the world to the first, surpassing the United States, the way they will do that is actually by riding and getting ahead of the green economy technology curve."

Vancouver's location and community of people focused on sustainability issues give the city an opportunity to bridge the emerging Asian green economy to North America, said Naidoo.

"The good news is that the job creation potential in the green economy is significantly more than the job creation potential in the fossil fuel sector or for that matter in nuclear," he said. Naidoo recalled a conversation he had in May with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In pushing her to phase out nuclear power, one argument "really penetrated." That was "when we said, 'Chancellor, nuclear is producing 30,000 jobs with massive state subsidies and the wind energy sector is producing already 300,000 jobs with only a fraction of state help.' "

Naidoo acknowledged that some key green tech breakthroughs, such as developing batteries with adequate storage and power, are slow in coming. But he said other successes cause him to be optimistic. Canada needs to stop heavily subsidizing its fossil fuel industry, suggested Naidoo, and pour more investment into green, renewable energy projects.

[Tags: Environment, Rights and Justice.]  [Tyee]

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