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Climate Change

A Stark Choice: Extreme Heat or Dirty Fuels

Regional temperature increases predicted by 2100. Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Synthesis Report 2004

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Aug 15 2013 (IPS) - Two reports released Wednesday reveal the dangerous gap between science and politics. New climate research shows that extreme events such as the severe heat wave in the U.S. last year will double in 2020, increase 400 percent by 2040, and then get far worse without significant carbon reductions.

Meanwhile, an analysis shows Canada cannot meet its weak 2020 carbon emissions reduction target even as it plans to triple the size of its massive tar sands operations in coming decades.

Canada’s has no credible carbon reduction plan and has done virtually nothing on climate since Stephen Harper’s government came to power in 2006, said activists.

“It will be very difficult for the Canadian government to achieve its own emissions reduction target for 2020 even without tar sands expansion,” Danny Harvey, a climate scientist at the University of Toronto, said at a press conference Wednesday.

Canada, the United States and other countries pledged to reduce their total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 17 percent compared to 2005 levels by the year 2020 under what is known as the Copenhagen Accord. Scientists say that target is too weak and will result in global temperatures rising by at least 3.5C, a very dangerous level of climate change.

Those high temperatures will likely produce heat extremes that kill people, animals and crops, and blanket 85 percent of the planet’s land area in summer by 2100, German and Spanish scientists reported late Wednesday.

“That’s what our calculations show for a scenario of unabated climate change,” said co-author Dim Coumou of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK).

Shockingly, it is already too late to prevent a doubling of heat waves by 2020 and four-fold increase by 2040, concludes the study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The reason for this is that burning enormous amounts of fossil fuels over the past 50 years has added 40 percent more heat-trapping CO2 gas to the atmosphere. Even if all human sources of CO2 emissions ended today, temperatures will continue to rise from the present 0.8C of additional warming to as much as 1.1. to 1.5C due to a time lag in the climate system, scientists say.

And those temperatures would not decline for a very long time.

That is why all countries agreed to cut CO2 emissions at the 2009 U.N. climate treaty negotiations in Copenhagen.

Canada matched the U.S. pledge to reduce emissions 17 percent but then did little to reduce its emissions and instead dramatically expanded the world’s biggest energy project, the Alberta tar sands.

Each year, the tar sands burn nearly 40 billion cubic metres of natural gas, roughly two-thirds of what India uses annually. This gas is mainly used to heat water so the tarry bitumen can be boiled out of the ground and converted into heavy crude oil.

In 2011, 370 million cubic metres of freshwater was used. This is more than the city of Toronto’s 2.8 million people use. Oil companies pay nothing for the water even though the water becomes too toxic to be returned to rivers or to aquifers.

Most analyses show that oil from the tar sands is the most polluting and has the highest CO2 footprint compared to other sources of oil. Those CO2 emissions are increasing as bitumen becomes harder to extract and are expected to double by 2020.

“Canadian politicians are simply not telling the truth. You can’t keep expanding the tar sands and meet the reduction target,” said Mark Jaccard, an energy economist at Simon Frasier University and a Harper government appointee to the now-shuttered National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.

There are no federal regulations on oil and gas emissions in Canada. Instead of acting, the Harper government launched a 16-million-dollar public relations campaign in the U.S. and Canada promoting the economic benefits of “responsible resource development” of the tar sands – a move mocked by activists as “greenwashing”.

Deep cuts in emissions after 2020 will be needed to avoid most of the world suffering under devastating heat waves before the end of the century, the Potsdam Institute’s research shows. Those reductions “will be impossible to achieve if we lock in 40 years of increased tar sands emissions by building more pipelines” like the Keystone XL, said the University of Toronto’s Danny Harvey in a press conference here in Toronto Wednesday.

The U.S. is on target to make its meet its Copenhagen reduction pledge. However, Canada’s abysmal environmental record has come to the attention of the Barack Obama administration. President Obama recently said that he would only approve the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline if it “does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution”. The long-delayed Keystone XL would bring 800,000 barrels of tar sands bitumen (heavy oil) to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Keystone XL will increase Canada’s emissions by allowing the tar sands to expand in size, said Gillian McEachern of Environmental Defence Canada. And there is no technology nor any policies that will allow Canada to reduce those emissions before 2020, McEachern said.

Other proposed pipelines that are needed to support tar sands expansion have met strong opposition in Canada and it is far from certain if they will be completed, said Jaccard.

“We are now at a point where the only acceptable alternative is for the U.S. government to reject Keystone XL,” he said.

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  • activist09

    In an oil-scarce world, we know there are
    sacrifices to be made in the pursuit of energy. What no one expected was
    that a tiny Native community living down the river from Canada’s tar
    sands would reach out to the world for help, and be heard.

  • climatehawk1

    Like it, but is it really a stark choice? Seems to me that we can have both dirty fuels AND extreme heat. Such a deal!

  • Stephen Leahy

    That’s a powerful documentary film, worth watching.

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