By John Parnell
A group of senior academics issued a letter this week to the Canadian government, criticising it for ignoring the threat of climate change.
It was the latest in a long line of reprimands for a nation that has been described as a “pariah” at the international climate talks.
A recent report on the $674bn carbon bubble identified how meeting global climate targets would mean leaving large volumes of the world’s fossil fuel reserves in the ground.
The fear over the country’s oil sands joining these stranded assets could well be behind the blunt shift in Canada’s environmental policy, hastened along by the government of Prime Minister Harper.
On the international front it has withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases, bizarrely pulled out of the UN’s drought agency and taken the Dodo award at the UN conference on biodiversity.
Environment Minister Peter Kent has said this and the Colossal Fossil award, given by NGOs to the nation that has done the most to hinder climate action are “worn with honour“.
It has also lobbied against European plans to tighten fuel quality regulations.
Back home emissions are rising, its only Green MP has been heckled in Parliament, it has approved drilling for fossil fuels in the Arctic and oil pipeline projects are dividing communities and facing growing opposition.
The motivation for all this is fairly straightforward. Its vast oil sands, the third largest proven oil reserves in the world.
“If you look at the carbon arithmetic, you cannot see how you can have a prayer of keeping climate change within 2°C while exploiting to the full the unconventional resources that are in Alberta, Venezuela and around the world,” says John Ashton, the UK’s former chief climate change diplomat.
“If Canada wants to be seen as part of the solution again, the first step is to recognize that.
“If you walk away, as Canada did, from the Kyoto Protocol you’re saying to the world: ‘you may think I’m part of the problem but I don’t mind’. You can’t then complain when people say ‘that is how we see you’. Canada is unashamedly part of the problem, because of the decision that it has taken,” adds Ashton.
This attitude is harder to take given the warm feelings that the country typically engenders as the USA’s safer, friendlier more polite neighbour.
Some in the government have sought to raise doubts about the dangers of climate change. Natural resources minister Joe Oliver raised eyebrows recently by suggesting fears around its impacts had been exaggerated.
“That’s a political judgement. It’s not an engineering or climate judgement,” says Tom Burke, co-founder of the independent environmental organisation E3G.
“Canada sees its economic future in frying the world basically – that’s where its economy prospers. If the world doesn’t fry all that lovely tar sands, that they hope will stop them from having to make or sell anything more complicated than oil, disappears.
“Because of their history the Canadians find themselves in a difficult position of wanting to retain the good feelings everybody had about them while behaving in an extremely bad way,” he adds.
Earlier this year, Ottawa MP David McGuinty told RTCC this attitude was representative of changing public attitudes as they place more focus on economic growth.
“The government are not going to try and win the sustainability popularity contest because they have proven they don’t need to,” he said.
Rhetoric on protecting the Canadian economy is often interchangeable with protecting the oil sands.
Canada wants to ramp-up production and that means a better distribution network. Approval for the Keystone XL pipeline headed south to refineries in the USA has turned into a four-year soap opera. A pipeline heading to ports on Canada’s west coast threatens to do the same thing.
Expanding output needs more refineries and more ways of getting the oil to them.
Simon Dyer, policy director of the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank and consultancy based in Canada, told RTCC there is more to come from the tar sands.
“Current oilsands production has just reached two million barrels per day, but approved production that has not been built yet would take us to more than 5.25 million barrels per day,” he says. “The lag times in what has already been approved and the cumulative climate impacts, that is the real issue here.”
So where would a successful deal under the UNFCCC, the UN’s climate change agency, leave this pre-approved production increase?
“The current and proposed level of oilsands production is a symptom of the lack of climate policy and there is certainly a risk that some of that approved production would be stranded and not viable should climate policy be strengthened globally,” warns Dyer.
Greening the oil sands?
Some concerned with the climate impacts of the tar sands, but resigned to its ongoing development are working on proposals to limits its damage.
The environment minister of Alberta’s provincial administration surprised the government, and the oil industry, by proposing a set of regulations called 40/40. These would require a 40% reduction in emissions generated in the carbon intensive production of a barrel of tar sands oil and a $40 levy on every tonne of CO2 emitted beyond that limit.
Pembina’s Clare Demerse says the province could act without federal approval but it is more likely that it would ask the national government to adopt its proposals across the country.
“It’s a starting point, but 40/40 alone doesn’t get Canada on track to its 2020 climate target,” Demerse told RTCC.
Pembina has suggested adding $10 to the penalty every year so that the price per tonne hits $100 in 2020.
With the Harper Government bearing the brunt of the criticism, many look to the next election as an opportunity for the country to come back into the climate action fold.
The country’s third largest party, the Liberals elected a new leader in April 2013, opting for the charismatic Justin Trudeau who swept home on a wave of positivity.
In 2011 unpopular Environment Minister Peter Kent told Parliament he would refuse to allow the opposition to form part of Canada’s delegation to the UN climate talks in Durban. Trudeau yelled “Oh, you piece of shit”, and was swiftly rebuked.
That may have won him some friends in the environmental movement but he is yet to outline his climate change plans in detail and he has disappointed many others by backing the Keystone XL pipeline.
Trudeau’s best chance of gaining power would be with an alliance with other left and centre left parties. At the moment they can attract a combined 60% of the vote and still fail to get into power.
If there are to be changes in Canada’s direction on climate they will still be constrained by ongoing oil sands production and not until the next election.
This will take place one month before the UN’s crucial 2015 climate talks in Paris where the deadline falls to agree a global emissions reduction deal.
Just the sort of agreement that Dyer says could leave Canada’s oil sands high and dry.