Last week I published a chart comparing potential tar sands CO2 to past Canadian emissions. I received a number of requests for similar charts that compare Canada's tar sands to other nation's emissions such as China, USA or a major EU nation.
Rather than make multiple charts, I decided to create one bar chart to rule them all.
Here it is:
For this chart, I removed all the categories of tar sands estimates except this critical one:
How much carbon will eventually become economic to burn
This determines the climate damage that will eventually emerge from the tar sands under business-as-usual policies. So far I’ve found two published estimates for this.
In 2006, the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) of Alberta estimated that the amount of bitumen (carbon) in the tar sands that will eventually become profitable would be double what it is now. This is the lower of estimate lines on my chart. As you can quickly see, it is far more than all the fossil fuel CO2 ever emitted by any nation on earth except USA. It is also more than all the natural gas ever burned by humanity.
In 2011, climate scientist James Hansen of NASA estimated that the amount of bitumen that will eventually becomes profitable could be six times what it is now. In a speech he gave after being arrested at the White House for protesting the expansion of the tar sands, Hansen said that this was roughly equal to all the coal ever burned by humanity.
Hansen defended his estimate, saying:
[It] is a conservative estimate of potential emissions from tar sands because:
(1) the economically extractable amount grows with technology development and oil price,
(2) the total tar sands resource is larger than the known resource, possibly much larger,
(3) extraction of tar sands oil uses conventional oil and gas, which will [add to total CO2]…,
(4) development of tar sands will destroy overlying forest and prairie ecology, emitting biospheric CO2 to the atmosphere.
In support of Hansen’s first point, the economically extractable amount has indeed grown with technology development and oil price. Over the last fifteen years the amount of profitable bitumen grew more than 25 times larger as a result.
In support of Hansen’s third point, the use of oil and gas in the extraction of tar sands has been shown to significantly increase the CO2 footprint of each barrel. The latest estimate I’ve seen puts this at an additional 18% more CO2 per barrel.
Now let’s look at how these two estimates of what might come out of the tar sands compare to the past emissions from various nations…
Compared to past national emissions
Historical CO2 emissions (1850 - 2008) for the world’s 185 nations can be found in the definitive World Resource Institute’s CAIT database. In my chart I’ve shown cumulative CO2 emissions for:
- 150 Nations combined: This is all the combined CO2 ever emitted by the 150 least climate polluting nations. A full list of these nations is at the bottom in the notes section.
I also included in my chart seven individual nations which represent the major emitters. Here is a description of each, along with their cumulative CO2 ranking.
- Brazil (#21 in all time climate pollution). Brazil is the largest all-time climate polluter in South America and 21st largest in the world. Per person however they have emitted little historically, and are at #100 in the world for that ranking. Brazil has a typical profile for a major developing nation: a large population with each person having a fairly small climate footprint.
- Canada (#9) is home to the tar sands. Turns out we are #9 in the world in total cumulative emissions both as a nation and per individual. Canada is typical of a wealthy developed nation: a smaller population but with each person having a very large climate footprint.
- India (#8) is home to a billion people. Despite being the eighth largest climate polluting nation in history, each person has one of the very lowest climate footprints. Indians rank way down at #122 out of 185 nations for both historical and current per capita emissions.
- Japan (#6) has as nearly many people living in the Tokyo area as Canada has in our whole nation. Historical emissions per Japanese are less than half of Canadians.
- Germany (#4) is the biggest total climate polluter in EU history. It just edges out the UK, but only because Germany has a larger population. Germans are #6 in cumulative per capita emissions which is even higher than Canadians. Today however Canadians emit almost twice as much per person as Germans.
- China (#2) is the second largest climate polluting nation in history. The vast majority of that has been from burning coal. Until very recently, the Chinese emitted little per person. However in the last decade they have rapidly increased their emissions per person. They now emit more per person than the French, Italians, Spanish, Swedes or Swiss, for example. Estimates are that if recent trends continue their current emissions will pass up even the Americans – per person – within five years.
- USA (#1) is by far and away the biggest cumulative climate polluter in history. It has single-handedly dumped close to a third of all global CO2. This is triple the amount of second place China. Only Luxembourg, out of the 185 nations, has emitted more per person since 1850 than Americans.
So there we are. The lower ERCB estimate shows the potential tar sands climate emissions significantly exceeds the historical emissions of every nation, except the USA. The higher Hansen estimate has the tar sands blowing by even the Godzilla of USA’s historical coal, oil and natural gas emissions.
(1) A full size version of this chart and supporting spreadsheet data can be found on my VisualCarbon website.
(2) The 150 nations that combined make up the “150 nations” bar are, in decreasing order of historical emissions:
Serbia & Montenegro
United Arab Emirates
Trinidad & Tobago
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Congo, Dem. Republic
Papua New Guinea
Antigua & Barbuda
Central African Republic
Saint Vincent & Grenadines
Saint Kitts & Nevis
Sao Tome & Principe