Keeping cool amidst bad guys: decarbonize!

The author's daughter keeping cool in southeastern Haida Gwaii

If humans were to burn all proven reserves of fossil fuels—those reserves that are economically viable to extract today—how would different fuels contribute to global warming? Would their additive effect cause a two degree Celsius rise in global temperature relative to pre-industrial levels? These questions have profound relevance to everyone because breaking the two degree threshold, climatologist warn, would push the planet into the perilous zone of rising sea levels and extreme climatic conditions that could destabilize civilization. And that threshold is getting closer. Humanity’s appetite for fossil fuels already has caused the Earth to warm 0.8 degrees Celsius in the last hundred years alone.

Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver crunched the numbers for answers. In a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change (Vol 2, pages 134–136, 2012), these climatologists from the University of Victoria estimate that global warming caused by the burning of all proven reserves of coal would be 0.92 degrees Celsius. Utilizing all of Canada’s oil sands, infamous for their local environmental impacts and intense energy requirements during extraction, would increase global temperatures by 0.03 degrees Celsius. Gas and conventional oil, in combination, would add another 0.40 degrees Celsius of warming.

Oil sands supporters could easily misconstrue the above results as a victory. After all, coal would bear the lion’s share of the total (68%) while  Canada’s oil sands contribute only 2%. Media headlines inspired by the study were unsurprising: “Coal, not oil sands, the true climate change bad guy, analysis shows” (The Globe and Mail and Winnipeg Free Press); “Coal, not oil sands, causes global warming: study” (CTV); “Coal, not oil sands, the real threat to climate, study finds” (Toronto Star). But are these the study’s conclusion or wishful thinking?

What Swart and Weaver actually said is that there are no good guys; consumption of coal and oil sands and gas and conventional oil must be phased out as soon as possible. Given that humans have already warmed the Earth by 0.8 degrees Celsius, burning the proven reserves of all fossil fuels, oil sands included, would create a world that is at least 2.15 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial times and push civilization into unprecedented climatic challenges.

This estimate is very conservative for at least four reasons. First, Swart and Weaver exclude emissions from oil sands production, which are greater than for conventional fossil fuels, and thus underestimate the total emissions by about 17%. Second, if we include fossil fuel reserves that are not yet economically viable to extract in the calculations, the result is a world that is over four degrees warmer than pre-industrial times. Third, Swart and Weaver consider only the warming that would result directly from burning fuels; they do not consider indirect mechanisms in which relatively small temperature rises unleash other processes that accelerate further warming. For instance, warming in the Arctic and Subarctic already has reduced sea ice and began to melt permafrost. The indirect consequences are that melting is releasing underground greenhouse gases and the dark unfrozen ocean is now absorbing solar radiation that sea ice once reflected back to space. Finally, oil sands extraction physically removes peat wetlands that store large amounts of sequestered carbon. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS 2012 doi:10.1073/pnas.1117693108) by University of Alberta ecologists Rebecca Rooney, Suzanne Bayley and David Schindler, “Landscape changes caused by currently approved mines will release between 11.4 and 47.3 million metric tons of stored carbon and will reduce carbon sequestration potential by 5,734–7,241 metric tons [per year].” Current plans by oil companies for land reclamation will fail to restore the land’s capacity to store carbon.

As Swart states in his public summary of the Nature Climate Change paper, “To keep warming below 2°C will require a rapid transition to non-emitting renewable energy sources, while avoiding commitments to infrastructure that supports fossil fuel dependence.” [My emphasis.] Given the scientific evidence, it is reasonable to expect the Canadian government to already be engaged in policy shifts that promote the timely phase out of oil sands production and the implementation of alternative energies. Instead, Prime Minister Harper and his Conservative government are aggressively seeking the approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline in British Columbia. Such a project would commit Canada to the extensive exploitation of the oil sands reserve. It would also show complete disregard for the 2009 Copenhagen accord, which recognized the scientific view ‘that the increase in global temperature should be below 2 degrees Celsius.’

A devil’s advocate might argue something like this. ‘We could just burn the oil sands, bear the pain of a 0.03 degrees Celsius temperature rise (plus more warming from production emissions and the release of peat carbon stores), and leave coal in the ground.’ Given that coal does have the greater potential contribution to global warming, in the most optimistic of worlds this argument might be akin to providing safe injection sites for drug addicts as a harm reduction strategy. In our world, however, that same argument implies that the rest of the world should be happy to grant Canada a monopoly while leaving their fossil fuels and money in the ground. Contrary to Harper’s policy of derailing international negotiations on climate change, analysts like Gwynne Dyer (author of Climate Wars) and NASA climatologist James Hansen (author of Storms Of My Grandchildren) point out that without international cooperation in which all nations work together to concurrently phase out fossil fuel production, this is just not going to work.

Oil sands production, therefore, is inseparable from broader issues of equity. Canadians represent half a percent of the global population. According to calculations that Swart provides on his website, if everyone in the world developed their resources and produced emissions at the same per capita rate as Canada, within a few decades the worlds climate would hugely exceed the two degree Celsius warming threshold agreed to in the Copenhagen Accord. Canada’s current efforts to limit warming clearly are inferior to its fair share and will be further diminished if we continue to exploit the oil sands.

Which brings us back to what Swart and Weaver actually concluded: consumption of coal and oil sands and gas and conventional oil must be phased out as soon as possible. This is not a pipedream. According to climatologists like Andrew Weaver and economists like Simon Fraser University’s Mark Jaccard, a rising price on carbon emissions would go a long way towards dethroning fossil fuels. In his 2009 testimony to the US House of Representatives, James Hansen details how a gradually rising federal carbon fee on fossil fuels at their source would ensure that clean energy (such as wind, solar and geothermal) could compete with fossil fuels within a short time frame. Hansen argues that the carbon tax would succeed in reducing emissions if all revenues were returned as monthly dividends to citizens, thus ensuring that everyone can afford the transition to a decarbonized economy and increasing financial reward for those who burn less fuel.

Yet even carbon taxes with teeth and a decarbonized economy would not make everything immediately rosy. Our consumption of fossil fuels already has caused atmospheric carbon dioxide to rise from a pre-industrial 280 parts per million (ppm) to 390 ppm today. All that excess carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere for centuries. The bad news, therefore, is that even an immediate cease to fossil fuel consumption will not stop global temperatures from continuing to rise for many decades. To stabilize the climate at the conditions under which civilization evolved, Hansen argues, atmospheric carbon must be reduced to 350 ppm or lower, a task that will require mass reforestation, agricultural practices that promote carbon sequestration in the soil, and some level of geo-engineering. Climatic challenges affecting food production and stable shorelines, therefore, will increase over the next several decades, even under the best case scenario.

Yet that bad news is pure sunshine compared to the alternative of not decarbonizing right now. Atmospheric carbon dioxide currently is increasing at annual rate of 2 ppm. If nothing changes, we will reach 450 ppm in about 30 years. According to paleoclimatic analyses by Hansen and colleagues, the last time Earth’s atmosphere exceeded 450 ppm of atmospheric carbon—35 million years ago—the planet was almost entirely ice-free and sea levels were radically higher than today. Considering that most of humanity lives in low-laying coasts, this is a recipe for refugee waves and social unrest of a global scale.

So let’s keep cool and leave most of the remaining coal, oil sands and other bad guys in the ground. As the father of an 8 year-old, I see no reasonable alternative.