P.J. Partington — Feb. 27, 2012
These are just a few of the headlines from recent media coverage of the analysis published in Nature Climate Change, “The Alberta oil sands and climate.” Judging by the reaction captured in the news coverage, you’d think the oilsands were suddenly less polluting than they were last month, and that all the serious concerns associated with ramping up oilsands expansion were groundless.
Why oilsands emissions matter
There are two ways to consider the problem of greenhouse gas pollution from the oilsands — in a global context, and in a Canadian context. In either case, this new study by University of Victoria's Andrew Weaver and Neil Swart shows reducing emissions from oilsands production is as important as ever.
Weaver, a world-renowned climatologist, and Swart, a doctoral student in UVic’s climate sciences department, have provided a good comparative analysis of the contributions of different sources of hydrocarbons, whether they be coal, oil or natural gas. Weaver and Swart conclude that, if fully exploited, the huge global abundance of coal and natural gas poses greater risks to global warming than Canada’s oilsands reserves do on their own.
It should come as no surprise that we have enough fossil fuels under our feet to cook the climate many times over (as Swart and Weaver show, coal can accomplish that feat single-handedly). But there’s limited space in the atmosphere for greenhouse gas pollution if we’re aiming to limit warming to 2˚C, the threshold that science tells us would avoid the worst impacts of climate change. And that means each source of carbon — including the oilsands — matters a great deal.
Oilsands expansion monopolizes North America’s carbon budget
The Weaver-Swart study puts greenhouse gas pollution from the oilsands sector in a tangible context by representing these emissions as part of our individual “carbon budgets.” (Since carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for an extremely long time, the total amount of warming is determined by cumulative emissions. This means that that there is a certain ‘budget’ of total emissions that humanity must stay within over the coming centuries if we are to limit warming to 2˚C above the pre-industrial level.)
As Swart and Weaver show, if we were to divide this budget equally by the number of people living on the planet, we would each be limited to a total of 85 tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution, spread over the next 500+ years. (Given the current global population, that works out to just 0.17 tonnes of emissions per person, per year — and that amount will continue shrinking as the population increases. For comparison, Canada’s per-capita emissions currently are in the ballpark of 20 tonnes per person each year.)
If we burn Canada’s proven oilsands reserves (the amount currently considered economically viable), the associated emissions are equivalent to 64 tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution per person in Canada and the U.S. In other words, it would use up about 75 per cent of our per person “carbon budget” for the next five centuries or more, leaving relatively little room for emissions associated with other activities.
Yet Canada has committed, along with all other major polluters, to take action to maintain warming at or below the 2˚C threshold. This is a very challenging goal, but failing to meet it comes with extremely serious risks.
Whether in terms of water stress, impacts on agriculture, extreme weather, sea-level rise or potential tipping points, the impacts of climate change beyond 2˚C become increasingly expensive, unmanageable, and permanent. Yet the ambition needed to meet this goal remains sorely lacking. The IEA has warned that current policies leave us on track for more than 6˚C of eventual warming, and that even fully implementing current climate commitments would likely result in 3.5˚C of warming.
As Dr. Weaver points out, the oilsands are just one of many fossil-fuel energy sources at our disposal — and other sources, such as coal, produce even more greenhouse gas pollution. So whether the oilsands’ contribution to emissions increases is relatively big or small globally is irrelevant when you consider that we need to rapidly decrease emissions overall, not just slow down their rate of increase. Bill McKibben wryly responded to the study, suggesting that it is akin to saying: “True, smoking six packs a day is going to kill you. But if you want to make certain you die, smoke a hundred packs a day. And if you really want to make sure you die tomorrow, lie down in front of a train.”
Following the release of this study, Swart summed up the problem with how the findings were represented this way:
“Much of the way this has been reported is (through) a type of view that oilsands are good and coal is bad…From my perspective, that was not the point. . . . The point here is, we need a rapid transition to renewable (energy), and avoid committing to long-term fossil fuel use if we are to get within the limits (of reducing global warming to less than 2˚C)."
Keeping oilsands emissions in perspective
On a Canadian scale, the oilsands present an even larger emissions challenge. As Weaver has consistently emphasized:
“It would be a huge mistake to interpret our results as some kind of a “get out of jail free” card for the tarsands. While coal is the greatest threat to the climate globally, the tarsands remain the largest source of greenhouse gas emission growth in Canada and are the single largest reason Canada is failing to meet its international climate commitments and failing to be a climate leader. The world needs to transition away from fossil fuels. That means coal, unconventional gas and unconventional oil all need to be addressed.”
As my colleague Clare Demerse has thoroughly explained, emissions from the oilsands sector — projected to account for more than 100 per cent of Canada’s emissions growth from 2005 to 2020 — matter in the Canadian context. A lot.
While this study is being cast as offering some comfort to the beleaguered oilsands industry, it should be cold comfort. If we use this research as a reason to further delay or dilute action to address the oilsands sector’s pollution growth, we do so at our peril — economically and environmentally. In reality, Swart and Weaver's study makes a compelling argument that Canada needs to get serious about our national emissions problem, and to drive the transition towards clean energy solutions.