As far as the atmosphere is concerned, it doesn’t matter if an extra molecule of carbon dioxide (CO2) comes from a recently-felled tree, from a molecule of methane in burned natural gas, from oil burned in an airplane, or from a coal-fired power plant. Regardless of the source, it adds to the already-dangerously-large stock of CO2 in the atmosphere.
This is one reason why commenters miss the point when they say things like: “the oilsands were responsible for seven per cent of Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, while the entire oil and gas sector produced 22 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gases in the same year”. While these figures may be accurate, they convey the false notion that these are the only sources of CO2 we need to worry about and that reducing these numbers is adequate for solving the climate problem.
What matter is how much fossil fuel we burn in total across history
These figures only take into consideration the emissions that arise from the process of producing oil and gas. For instance, there is the natural gas that gets burned to make bitumen liquid enough to be processed and transported. The figured do not include the emissions that result when these fuels are burned. This is where most of the pollution actually happens and it is inevitable. Even if carbon capture and storage (CCS) was completely free and available today, it wouldn’t be possible to capture the pollution from vehicles, and that is where most of the oil from the oil sands ends up.
The key factor that will determine how much climate change the planet experiences is how much CO2 gets added to the atmosphere. Burning coal, oil, and gas inescapably contributes to that stock, which is already dangerously large. As such, Canada cannot ignore exports when it considers how to bring its economic activity in line with what the planet can withstand. The entire coal, gas, and oil industries need to be phased out in a rapid way. At the same time, we need to develop whichever carbon-neutral energy sources will sustain us in the future: some mixture of renewable forms of energy like wind and solar, biomass, and nuclear power.
Warming begets further warming
It is important to remember that the indifference of the climate to the source of CO2 molecules extends beyond direct human activities. If we warm the planet so much that the Amazon dries out and becomes grassland, the huge volume of CO2 currently stored in the rainforest will be added to the atmosphere. Similarly, if we warm the permafrost to the point where it melts and releases its gargantuan content of methane (a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, though shorter-lived), we will have another large dollop of warming to deal with, and an increased chance of catastrophic outcomes like the disintegration of the ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica.
Based on the evidence we have from millions of years of climate data, we know that the climate can be prone to violent swings when provoked. Push it a little bit and perhaps it will naturally return to about where it was before (‘pushing’ here means releasing greenhouse gas pollution). Push it enough, however, and it can tip over into a very different state, like a Coke machine tilted to the point where it falls over. All of human civilization has taken place during times of relative climatic stability. If we radically destabilize the climate, the consequences for human beings everywhere will be dire.
To a very large degree, Canadians are missing the point about climate change. It isn’t a matter of deciding whether growth in the oil sands is pushing up the Canadian dollar in a way that hurts manufacturers. It also isn’t a matter of deciding what sort of small carbon tax would make Canada’s emissions acceptable. If we are to preserve a habitable planet for the people who will follow us, all signs indicate that we must get serious about the process of phasing out fossil fuels. Either humanity has a future or the global fossil fuel industry does – not both. That is very unwelcome news in a country that stands to make billions of dollars from fossil fuel exports, but it is the situation in which we now find ourselves.
We can choose to ignore the fact that what we are doing threatens the future habitability of the planet. We can also choose to bet that some future technology will allow us to solve or counteract the climate problem. If we make such choices, we should be entirely clear about what we are doing. If we accept the reality of climate change but choose to plow on heedlessly anyway, we should accept that we are entering into a suicide pact with countries like China and the United States that are doing the same thing. Neither has shown itself to be at all capable of moderating its demand for fossil fuels, and Canada is providing an increasing share of the oil, gas, and coal that fuels their frightening emissions.
If we choose to bet on technological salvation, we should similarly recognize that we are placing bets with lives that are not our own. We are saying that whether people in future generations inherit a planet that permits human prosperity or a planet in which civilization struggles to endure depends on whether some magic new technology appears in time to correct our mistakes – mistakes we now fully understand, but which we have so far refused to stop making.
Every barrel of oil we dig up and burn is another dangerous dart we are hurling at random at the people of the future – people who are already going to suffer substantially from the damage we have already done. We don’t need to choose that kind of irresponsible and selfish behaviour. We can turn our energy instead to building a zero-carbon energy system and an efficient society. Such a society will have a shot at long-term prosperity, which is something that cannot be said for societies that depend on fossil fuels that are ever-more scarce and which are destroying the planet.