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As Canada looks across the Pacific for markets for its oil and gas, it may find itself in an usual position on the world's environmental stage: Exporter of fossil fuels to clean up the world.

On Monday, the Center for Global Development ranked Canada dead last among the 27 developed nations comprising the OECD for its environmental performance – citing the country's rising fossil-fuel production levels as a key factor in its contribution to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Canada is the only OECD country whose environmental score on the Center's "Commitment to Development Index" has actually gotten worse over the past decade.

Yet at approximately the same time as this damnation of Canada's energy expansion, Fatih Birol, chief economist at the OECD's International Energy Agency, played down the environmental impact of Canada's energy production in an interview with The Globe and Mail. Indeed, he suggested that Canada's potential as a future provider of oil and gas to Asia could actually reduce global GHG intensity – an argument for subtraction by addition.

It seems counterintuitive that Canada should somehow get credit if and when it ramps up its transportation of fuels, particularly liquefied natural gas (LNG), from the West Coast to China and other Asian markets. But consider what those countries are using for fuel today.

Asia is responsible for fully two-thirds of all the thermal coal (the kind burned to create electricity) consumed in the world; China alone accounts for roughly half of the world's coal consumption. China has more than 600 coal-fired electrical power stations – many of which are old, inefficient and dirty.

The country produces 70 per cent of its electrical power using coal, but with its urban population increasingly choked by health-threatening smog, the Chinese government is looking for lower-emission alternatives. It recently banned new coal-fired plant construction near its three biggest cities, and is replacing several old coal facilities around Beijing with natural-gas-powered facilities.

Studies put GHG emissions from natural gas-fuelled electrical generation at roughly half that of coal over the fuel's entire life cycle (i.e. from production through distribution to end use). If China were to shut down large numbers of coal plants over the next few decades and replace them with gas-fired plants, the result would be a massive improvement in China's emissions – and, by extension, would make a significant dent in reducing global GHGs. But it can't do it without the gas supplies to make it possible.

This is where Canadian fuels come in. With a half-dozen proposed LNG projects in the works for the British Columbia coast and several others on the drawing board, the country could become a major source of natural gas to help fill the needs of not only China, but other countries in the coal-intensive region.

Of course, all this highlights the complication in assigning responsibility for GHG emissions across borders – an issue that is sure to take on ever greater significance as the international community takes more concrete steps to address the problem. But if countries such as Canada are to face the blame (and, potentially, eventual economic penalties) as producers and providers of GHG-producing fuels, they will also deserve credit for exporting cleaner alternatives to help solve the problems of some of the world's most egregious polluters.

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