All fossil fuels must be cut to avoid global warming, UVic scientists say
Feb 22 2012
Two Canadian climate change scientists say all forms of fossil fuels, including the oilsands (below) and coal, must be regulated for the world to avoid dangerous global warming.Photograph by: MARK RALSTON , AFP/Getty Images
OTTAWA — Two Canadian climate change scientists from the University of Victoria say the public reaction to their recently published commentary has missed their key message: that all forms of fossil fuels, including the oilsands and coal, must be regulated for the world to avoid dangerous global warming.
"Much of the way this has been reported is (through) a type of view that oilsands are good and coal is bad," said climate scientist Neil Swart, who co-authored the study with fellow climatologist Andrew Weaver. "From my perspective, that was not the point. . . . The point here is, we need a rapid transition to renewable (energy), and avoid committing to long-term fossil fuel use if we are to get within the limits (of reducing global warming to less than 2 C)."
The commentary, published in the British scientific journal, Nature Climate Change, estimated the impact of consuming the fuel from oilsands deposits — without factoring in greenhouse gas emissions associated with extraction and production — would be far less harmful to the planet's atmosphere than consuming all of the world's coal resources.
"The conclusions of a credible climate scientist with access to good data are very different than some of the rhetoric we've heard from Hollywood celebrities of late," said Travis Davies, a spokesman from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. "However, it clearly doesn't absolve industry from what it needs to do: (To) continue to improve environmental performance broadly, and demonstrate that improvement to Canadians and our customers . . . in terms of GHG emissions, as well as water, land and tailings facilities."
Swart and Weaver also note that growth in Alberta's oilsands sector and recent debates over a major pipeline expansion project in the United States represent a symptom of the planet's unhealthy dependence on fossil fuels. The commentary said policymakers in North America and Europe must avoid major infrastructure of this nature since it is pushing the planet dangerously close to more than 2 C of average global temperatures above pre-industrial levels, which is considered to be a threshold of dramatic changes in the Earth's ecosystems.
Swart also said their estimates revealed that the relative impact of the oilsands on the climate, per unit of production, would push the average Canadian to 75 per cent of what would be considered their maximum allowable carbon dioxide footprint for an entire lifetime. In other words, this would mean that after factoring in oilsands emissions, the average Canadian would not have much room left to consume fossil fuels for their other energy needs if he or she wanted to do their fair share of reductions when compared with citizens from other countries, Swart explained.
"If we go down this path, the amount of warming will be massive," Swart said.
Governments from around the world have agreed that scientific evidence shows that humans are causing global warming through land-use changes and the burning of fossil fuels, but that it is possible to avoid dangerous impacts of climate change by dramatically cutting levels of greenhouse gas emissions that are trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Davies said his association disputes a new estimate released by the top department in the federal government, the Privy Council Office, that warned an emerging form of on-site oilsands extraction, using the injection of steam into the ground, is producing three times the emissions as the conventional form of mining bitumen and separating synthetic crude from the clay in the ground with heated water.
Although he was not immediately able to provide up-to-date industry estimates on the topic, Davies noted that Postmedia News had reported this week on progress made by some oilsands operators, such as Cenovus, that say they have reduced emissions enough to meet emerging climate change standards for fuel in the state of California.
Simon Dyer, policy director at the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based environmental research group, said its own estimates show the overall intensity of the industry has been increasing over the past five years.
"I don't see anything to suggest any major breakthroughs on in-situ," said Dyer. "From our perspective, it's not so much technologically specific as reservoir specific. The guys that have the sweetest spots for bitumen, don't have to inject as much steam and therefore, don't produce as much greenhouse gases."
Davies said the industry still believes it's important "to continue to advance our environmental performance on all fronts," while providing transparent data in an expanded federal and provincial government monitoring program.
"Government expects this, as do Canadians," Davies said.