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The expansion of oil-sands operations and various pipeline proposals to get bitumen to market have incraseingly been topics of conversation in Canada, from debates in the House of Commons to discussions around the dinner table. Much of the discussion has focused around tangible things that we can see – devastation of the Alberta landscape from surface mining operations, pollution of downstream rivers, the threat of pipeline spills, and the danger of accidents involving supertankers along the British Columbia coast.

Conspicuously absent from this discussion has been any acknowledgement of limits on the allowed cumulative carbon-dioxide emissions, and the implications of these constraints for the amount of bitumen than can extracted and consumed. Although many in Canada, both in the oil industry and government, may prefer to pretend that there are no climate-related limits, the rest of the world (and many Canadians) are waking up to the fact that projected global warming – due overwhelming to our emissions of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels – poses a real and serious threat to the future well-being of the entire human race and of all life on this planet.

To reduce this risk, the nations of the world gathered in Cancun in 2010 and agreed to keep the global average warming below 2ºC. To have any hope of staying below this limit, the world can burn only the remaining conventional reserves of light oil and conventional natural gas. Global emissions of carbon dioxide will have to drop by 50 to 80 per cent by 2050 – less than 40 years from now – and will have to reach zero before the end of this century.

Fortunately, there are many different ways in which this could be achieved, but expanding production of petroleum from the oil sands and building pipelines that lock in expanded oil-sands extraction for the next 40 years is not among them. In a carbon-limited world – which is where we are heading – expensive and carbon-intensive fossil fuels such as the oil sands will be among the first to go, and those who invest in expansion of the oil sands risk significant financial losses.

The good news is we are on the right track with improvements in vehicle efficiency to which we have committed. With technology advancing and plans on the books, the average fuel consumption of new cars and light trucks will drop by half by 2025 and has the potential to drop to three times as much afterwards. Comparable reductions are possible for transport trucks. Prospects are also very good for the development of economical plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which could be charged with clean, renewable electricity produced from wind, hydro and solar energy. The resulting fuel requirements per kilometre driven for passenger vehicles could be close to nine times less than they are now – low enough that they could be supplied by liquid fuels from biomass or hydrogen produced from renewable electricity sources.

Canada and Alberta need to begin now to prepare for the post-carbon world – a world that will be largely powered by some combination of hydro, wind, solar, and biomass energy – all of which are or could be produced in abundance in Canada. More importantly, the post-carbon world requires that we make energy efficiency our number one priority, because only in that way will our overall demand for energy be small enough that it can be reliably met by renewable, but sustainable, energy sources.

We need to complement a doubling or tripling of the efficiency of the car and truck fleets with a dramatic strengthening of building codes – reducing the energy requirements of new buildings by as much as three times – and a national, 40-year program to retrofit the entire building stock of Canada to reduce the energy requirements of existing buildings much like what is being planned in Germany, the UK and California.

Our current obsession with pipelines is distracting us from these more urgent tasks.

Danny Harvey is a professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Toronto, a former convening lead author of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group 1 report (dealing with climate science) and lead author of IPCC Working Group III (dealing with solutions).