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The Natural Resources Minister responds to a letter from leading climate scientists:

Thank you for your letter of May 7, 2013, which raises issues about our government's approach to developing our oil resources. A meaningful discussion about our resources, our commitment to environmental protection and the threat of global climate change is important, but it must be grounded in the facts.

Our government believes, as you do, that climate change is a serious global threat and that the trend of rising emissions of greenhouse gases must be mitigated. We are taking action to reduce emissions, but in a manner that does not undermine our standard of living and Canadian jobs.

While we agree about the science and the need for action, we disagree with your recommended policy response. Unfortunately, it is unrealistic to believe that we can significantly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels in the foreseeable future and that renewables are the main answer to climate change.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasted that in 20 years the world, under the most optimistic scenario for renewable energy, will still rely on fossil fuels for 63 per cent of its energy needs. Escape from poverty in the developing world is impossible without access to affordable energy. An end to the use of fossil fuels would have dire, if not catastrophic, global economic and social consequences, especially for the poorest countries, where 1.5 billion people live without electricity. It would also seriously undermine Canada's standard of living and energy security.

Furthermore, to allege that the global fight against climate change hinges on shutting down the oil sands is simply wrong. The oil sands account for 0.1 per cent or one-thousandth of global emissions, so blocking its development would do almost nothing to address the problem. Obviously effective action on climate change must also address the other 99.9 per cent.

That, of course, does not absolve Canada of its responsibility as a global citizen. Indeed, we are engaging the world, through the United Nations and in bi-lateral discussions to establish a new global climate change agreement that includes meaningful commitments by all major emitters. We have committed $1-billion to fight climate change internationally.

Domestically, we have taken action to reduce our own GHG emissions and estimate that, as a result of collective action to date, we are already halfway toward closing the gap between our original projections for 2020 and where we need to be to meet our 17 per cent Copenhagen Accord target.

Canada is the first major coal user to ban the construction of traditional coal-fired electricity generation units. We have imposed ambitious fuel efficiency standards for passenger cars and light trucks. Because of these standards, 2025 vehicles will consume up to 50 per cent less fuel than 2008 vehicles. And we have invested $10-billion in green energy science and technology and other programs.

Overall, the IEA rates Canada as second only to Germany in the rate of energy efficiency improvement from 1990 to 2008. Canada's efforts to reduce GHG emissions are paying off. Emissions per capita are at their lowest level since tracking began. In the oil sands, total GHG emission intensity per barrel has declined 26 per cent between 1990 and 2011.

More broadly, we decoupled economic growth and emissions. Between 2005 and 2011, while Canada's economy grew by 8.4 per cent, our greenhouse gas emissions declined by 4.8 per cent. This decrease is greater than what was achieved over the same period by 12 European countries, including Norway and Finland, where emissions decreased by 1.7 per cent and 2.5 per cent, respectively. Outside of Europe, Canada reduced emissions more than Japan, Australia, and Russia.

In contrast, data from the European Commission's Joint Research Centre show that China's emissions grew by 43 per cent from 2005 to 2010.

The bottom line is that addressing the global challenge of climate change requires a realistic global effort including all major emitters. As part of that effort, our government is determined to develop Canada's oil sands to help meet the world's energy needs in an environmentally responsible way.

Joe Oliver is Canada's natural resources minister.