It appears that Canada (or the part I follow) is all a twitter about an interesting analysis ($$$) by prominent climate scientist Andrew Weaver and his colleague Neil Swart that counts up all fossil fuel reserves, then converts them into global temperature increases based solely on their combustion CO2 emissions potential. It turns out that oilsand reserves are dwarfed by the available coal and natural gas reserves and overall tarsands contribution to temperature increase is modest.
If the entire Alberta oil-sand resource (that is, oil-in-place) were to be used, the associated carbon dioxide emissions would induce a global mean temperature change of roughly 0.36 °C (0.24–0.50 °C) However, considering only the economically viable reserve of 170 billion barrels reduces this potential for warming by about tenfold (to 0.02–0.05 °C), and if only the reserve currently under active development were combusted, the warming would be almost undetectable at our significance level.
The Canadian media has chosen to play up just the fact that on a global scale, the project will result in a small increase in global temperature, so the oilsands are okay to exploit.
Climate expert says coal not oilsands real threat – CBC
Other articles pretty much say the same thing, Prof. Weaver’s quoted comments don’t help either:
“The conventional and unconventional oil is not the problem with global warming,” “The problem is coal and unconventional natural gas.” “One might argue that the best strategy one might take is to use our oil reserves wisely, but at the same time use them in a way that weans us of our dependence on coal and natural gas”
Weaver’s comments to the media posit this as an either-or, coal and natural gas = bad, oil = okay. Knowing him to be a very intelligent person, I suspect this is some selective quoting. Also, oil is primarily used to fuel transportation, coal and natural gas are used for electricity generation, so I am curious as to what Prof. Weaver is suggesting here as far as using oil reserves to wean us off coal use? Would the plan be to use all the money that we get from exploiting the tarsands to develop an electricity infrastructure that puts efficiency, reduced electricity use, 100% renewables first? I wish! I don’t see that happening. Alberta is currently powered mostly by coal, and if the Federal government is serious in its stated goal to phase new coal out (which is fantastic), then Alberta would switch to natural gas to fuel its tarsands exploitation, and that would not be okay either! Also, these infrastructures are all linked. A lot of BC’s natural gas and proposed big damaging dams like Site C are designed to fuel the tarsands. A province and by extension, country that makes most of its money by taking the resources it was provided for free, and selling them at great profit is not likely to want to transition away from that.
It was interesting that a few weeks back, Mark Jaccard, yet another prominent BC climate scientist (we are blessed) looked at the same issue and came to the following conclusion.
Canadian tarsands must contract as part of a global effort to prevent a 4 degree increase in temperatures and catastrophic climate change.
Vancouver Sun – January 26, 2012
So, is this Jaccard vs. Weaver?
Is the Swart and Weaver message that simple? Are they actually saying that it is okay to exploit away because it makes no difference?
The media should start by reading the byline:
The claimed economic benefits of exploiting the vast Alberta oil-sand deposits need to be weighed against the need to limit global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions.
That’s how the paper starts. It then calculates global warming potentials based on reserves, current production, total “in place” (present, but not always exploitable) and shows that coal and natural gas are by far the greatest potential contributors. This is of course simply because we have much greater reserves of coal and natural gas, so their global warming potential is going to be huge. The paper makes no mention of rate of use, or whether it is humanly possible to use all that coal and natural gas, and what kind of population growth, and per-capita consumption that would entail.
Here’s a very important calculation from the paper that will be lost in the details. To limit temperature rise to 2 °C or less, the allowed, cumulative per person future carbon consumption is 85 tons of carbon. The per-capita carbon potential of the tarsands alone to US and Canada is 65 tons of carbon. So, by itself, the proven reserves (10% of what’s there) of the tarsands can eat up 75% of our allowed carbon budget, not so small, is it.
Here’s what Swart and Weaver have to say about trajectory:
The eventual construction of the Keystone XL pipeline would signify a North American commitment to using the Alberta oilsand reserve, which carries with it a corresponding carbon footprint
Here’s the last paragraph from the paper, another big trajectory argument.
If North American and international policymakers wish to limit global warming to less than 2 °C they will clearly need to put in place measures that ensure a rapid transition of global energy systems to non-greenhouse-gas-emitting sources, while avoiding commitments to new infrastructure supporting dependence on fossil fuels
Absolutely, 100% agreed, but this is not what the media message is at all, interesting.
So Swart and Weaver point out that we need to avoid commitments to new infrastructure promoting fossil fuel dependence, and that building projects like Keystone XL and the Northern Gateway signal a serious commitment to using the entire tarsands. The message in the paper is much more nuanced, and more measured than what’s in the media, not surprising.
I have long since come to the conclusion that this is not about counting of individual carbon atoms and their non-measurable global warming contributions, of course any single project will not tip us over one way or the other. It is about trajectory. To use two smoking analogies, the argument against smoking is not that the next cigarette will kill you, it is that smoking will kill many people in a population over a lifetime. More aptly in this case, the argument is that Grand River Enterprises, a small Canadian cigarette concern, doesn’t contribute as much to smoking deaths as does Imperial Tobacco, so it is somehow different and okay.
Every major fossil fuel commitment we make is a commitment we do not make to reducing consumption, or increasing renewable use. Every foreign policy/domestic policy decision we take to keep our dollar high to get maximum revenue from the tarsands to shareholders (not the population) is a commitment to not building renewable infrastructure, or spending money on energy efficiency. So, trajectories count, and that is the underlying message from Swart and Weaver.
To finish it off, here’s the PhD Comics Science News Cycle, which is very apropos.
PS: Is Weaver and the Tarsands a good band name?
Joe Romm of climate progress responds to the paper here, thanks @softgrasswalker
And from comments, looks like Prof Weaver was on the CBC this morning, reprising his usual climate hawk self, will listen when they put the audio up.
Here’s Prof. Weaver in the Huffington Post commenting on the study. More about this when I don’t have work to do.