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Do the oilsands threaten our safe climate? Hansen's "game over" vs Oliver's "minuscule amount"

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"If we were to fully exploit this new oil source, and continue to burn our conventional oil, gas and coal supplies … it will be game over for the climate."

Limits needed?

If Hansen is right, then a safe climate future will require the vast majority of the economically viable carbon in the Alberta oilsands has to stay in the ground forever.

To ensure that happens requires laws -- such as an effective fee on climate pollution.

So far such laws don't exist for the oilsands. Instead the current Conservative Harper government has made rapid exploitation of the oilsands a top national priority. And the new leader of the Liberal opposition, Justin Trudeau, sounds just as gung-ho:

"There’s not a country in the world that would find 170 billion barrels of oil under the ground and leave them there."

These two political parties have held power in Canada for the last twenty years. Neither put any limits on the amount of carbon that will eventually be extracted from the oilsands. Neither sounds likely to do so in foreseeable future.

This lack of safe limits from government has lead citizens concerned about the climate threat to look for other ways to limit the amount of carbon coming out of the oilsands. Battles are breaking out over pipelines, fuel standards, boycotts ... anything and everything. The fight isn't likely to stop until people feel that safe limits are in place.

What limits look like

With a safe climate requiring limits on the total carbon that comes out of the Alberta oilsands, let's look at some possible limits:

  • Oliver's 1/1000th
    Giving the oilsands 1/1000th of the world's safe-CO2 budget means giving them a 0.47 GtCO2 limit. Extracting and burning oilsands products will use up that up by early next year.
  • Current 1%
    Currently, extracting and burning oilsands products creates about 1% of global CO2. This is similar to the CO2 emitted by major nations like France and Brazil. Giving the oilsands 1% of the world's safe-CO2 budget means giving them a 4.7 GtCO2 limit. Extracting and burning oilsands products, under current expansion plans, will use up that limit up before 2020. Seven more years and then bust.
  • Double to 2%
    Doubling the oilsands current share of global emissions would give them 2% of the world's safe-CO2 budget. Current oilsands expansion plans will cause this limit to be exceeded by 2025. Twelve more years and then game over for the industry. Yet new infrastructure like the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is expected to be still be pumping oilsands in 2060.

Future shock

The rapid and unregulated growth of the oilsands is on a collision course with a safe climate future. Governments in Canada are turning a blind eye to the inevitable harm that will come from this.

The result might be our climate system being pushed into dangerous territory, as Hansen warns.

Or the result might be a massive carbon bubble popping, leaving extremely expensive stranded assets littering the Albertan and Canadian economy, as an increasing number of financial experts warn about.

Sadly, I'm starting to worry that both will happen.

The continuing lack of government leadership on this threat has me thinking we will end up with the worst of both worlds. First we will ignore the climate threat for so long we lock in a dangerous new weather system and over-acidified oceans. Then we will find ourselves forced into war-time footing to prevent run-a-way climate changes. Doing so will require we abandon all the wealth we sunk into countless pieces of fossil fuel infrastructure we should never have built in the first place.

Far better would be to change course now to limit the damage. That will require our political leaders, like Minister Oliver, to have an honest conversation with Canadians about two things:

  1. the safe limits of our atmosphere as a dumping ground for CO2
  2. the plan for how the oilsands will be developed in a way that doesn't threaten to push us all past those safe limits
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