Canada's Ethical Deficit

I have president envy. Here in Canada we are stuck with Prime Minister Steven Harper – a leader so un-inspirational he could be mistaken for Mr. Rogers on sedatives. The United States on the other hand now has a president-elect who has electrified the world.

But this envy is not merely about charisma. The United States seems well on the road to finally getting serious about climate change. Canada under Harper now has perhaps the worst climate policy of any country in the developed world. In fact, had John McCain prevailed instead, Canada would still be trailing the US in carbon reduction targets.

Worse still, Mr. Harper is trying to drag the US down with us. Just this week, Harper proposed to Obama that Canada and the US enter into a climate agreement that would guarantee the continued pell-mell development of the Alberta tar sands. To Obama’s credit, and our shame, the US very likely won’t collude with us to the detriment of our the planet’s atmosphere.

During the campaign, Obama’s team was highly critical of the US’s continued reliance on “dirty oil”. That is a widely perceived to be a code word for oil originating from the Alberta tar sands.

So energy intensive are these very low-grade deposits that 700 million cubic of relatively clean natural gas are burnt each day just to extract tar from rock. This is enough to heat more than 3.7 million Canadian homes.

It is not just the massive emissions resulting from separating tar from sand. The only reason you produce oil is to refine it and burn it in vehicles. This precludes the very oversold concept of “carbon capture”, unless of course you trail a very long hose behind your car.

Production and downstream emissions for Alberta synthetic crude are 638 kg carbon dioxide per barrel – much higher than conventional oil.

Based on extractable reserves of 175 billion barrels, the oil sands will eventually contribute an incredible 112 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide to the planet’s atmosphere – equivalent to all fossil fuel and industrial emissions worldwide combined over a period of more than four years.

Released all at once, these emissions would single handedly bump atmospheric CO2 concentrations close to 400 ppm. This is perilously close to potential catastrophic tipping points identified by the scientific community. It’s hard to imagine meaningful emissions targets that would not limit the development of the Alberta oil sands.

Back to Barack. He has committed the United States to a U-turn on climate policy, including strict carbon caps. That of course would be a disaster for oil-addled Alberta – Harper’s political power base. After all, what good is the world’s largest capital project, if our biggest trading partner doesn’t want to buy what it produces?

Watching the US for the last eight years has been like watching an old friend with a drinking problem. Just as Uncle Sam seems ready to sober up, Canada is trying to hand him another bottle.

Expect to see Harper try to take our country and the US even farther on the wrong side of history. Expect the US to say no.

No comments: