Andrew Weaver and Neil Swart of the University of Victoria are surely about to receive a major award from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), the Alberta government and even the Canadian government for their just-released paper in Nature on the potential contribution of Alberta tar sands to global warming.
Their conclusion is that combustion of all the oil in the tar sands would not cause more than a 0.36 degree Celsius increase in average global temperatures – while scientists and political leaders agree that we can't allow temperatures to increase more than two degrees.
CAPP and the Alberta government must be ecstatic with the research of Dr. Weaver and Mr. Swart because it echoes the message they've been propagating for decades, joined more recently by the Harper government. The basic message is that stopping tar sands will not prevent climate change. And the implicit conclusion is that we should go ahead and develop the tar sands, since it really isn't critical to solving the problem.
Every year, one of the projects I give my students is to figure out how the global community can address the climate risk, given that it requires concerted global action, that some countries cause more emissions per capita than others, that some are endowed with abundant fossil fuel resources, and that some are richer than others. The students must also address the fact that the energy system is complex in that emissions reductions take time as we renew factories, buildings and vehicles, and that costs differ depending on energy forms (fossil fuels, renewables) and energy uses (electricity generation, transportation, buildings).
But every year, they produce the same answer: Action must begin immediately, rich countries must go first and poorer, lower emission countries must soon follow, even if tariffs are required to ensure compliance. And given current emission levels, they point out, emissions must be falling now in all sectors of the economy, although this may happen faster in some sectors than others, depending on relative costs of decarbonizing.
I also ask the students to address CAPP's argument that tar sands development doesn't matter. Since some of the students have studied philosophy, they say this argument is a variation of the "fallacy of composition." This fallacy involves inferring that, since an individual component on its own is not a problem, then it isn't part of a problem that exists when all components are added together.
Dr. Weaver and Mr. Swart are climate modellers. If they had consulted any of the world-leading independent energy-economy modellers at MIT, University of Maryland, Berlin, Vienna or Stanford, they would have done a different study by looking at combined sets of reductions around the world, and recognizing that all components currently or potentially in use are part of the solution.
What researchers who do this consistently find is that it's already too late to prevent a two-degree increase because of the inertia in our global energy system, which is 85 per cent based on burning coal, oil and natural gas. We would have to blow up our factories, electricity plants and vehicles to achieve that goal.
They also show that, even if we just hope to keep the increase below four degrees, then we can't allow any expansion of the tar sands, and certainly no new pipelines such as Keystone and Northern Gateway to support any expanded use of fossil fuels. An example is the recent 20-page report from MIT's Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, Canada's Bitumen Industry Under CO2 Constraints (http://globalchange.mit.edu). The report shows how and why the Canadian tar sands must contract immediately as part of a global effort to prevent a four-degree increase in temperature and catastrophic climate change.
Ironically, the Harper government recognized this when, in 2007, it promised to reduce Canada's greenhouse-gas emissions 65 per cent by 2050. The MIT study incorporates this promise into its analysis, again confirming that tar sands must start contracting now. Even Stephen Harper's hand-picked National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy came to the same conclusion when it studied his target, in the report Achieving 2050. It showed that Canadian emissions must start falling immediately, including emissions associated with tar sands. In essence, we need to be moving now to switch our transportation system to zero-emission energy and, fortunately, we now have commercial technologies and fuels to achieve this.
Usually, CAPP and its allied governments have to pay for someone to propagate the fallacy of composition in order to justify a continuation of fossil fuel profiteering in Canada at the planet's expense. For once, they get it for free.
Mark Jaccard is a professor at Simon Fraser University and lead author for sustainable energy policy in the coming Global Energy Assessment.