By Mark Jaccard
Originally published in The Vancouver Sun, January 25 2012
As a sustainable energy researcher, I have been inundated with media requests to comment on the proposed new pipelines from Alberta’s tarsands, especially Enbridge’s Northern Gateway here in British Columbia. I have mostly declined, assuming that with such intense public interest the key issues would get a full airing. But I was wrong — for no one is discussing the proverbial “elephant in the room.” This is the connection between tarsands expansion and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2007 promise to Canadians to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions 65 per cent by 2050.
Harper’s promise, recently reconfirmed, simply reflects the overwhelming scientific consensus that while any increase in average global temperatures from pre-industrial levels is dangerous, increases above 2 degrees Celsius will likely have cataclysmic effects for the ecosystems on which we depend. Yet human combustion of fossil fuels has already driven the temperature 1.2 degrees higher, and we are on a path of 4 degrees or more in this century alone, which will ultimately increase the sea level by tens of metres. This is why leaders of industrialized countries, like the U.S. and European Union, agreed to reduce emissions 80 per cent by 2050 and will work to require global emissions to start declining this decade.
A target 38 years hence might seem safely distant. But this is incorrect. All leading independent climate policy institutes concur that only with immediate action will we achieve a 65-80 per cent reduction in less than four decades. In the case of vehicles, this means the rapid deployment of near-zero-emission technologies which, thankfully, are already commercially available. These include hybrid vehicles using biofuels (ethanol or biodiesel), plug-in hybrid vehicles, and battery-electric vehicles. In contrast, our demand, and soon the global demand, for oil must contract, especially the demand for high-cost, high-emission tarsands.
Thus, for his promise not to be a lie, Harper cannot allow expansion of tarsands and associated pipelines, and he must require a growing market share of near-zero-emission vehicles. He knows this because his analysts are privy to the work of the world’s leading researchers. Canadians on all sides of the issue should read a 20-page report from MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change entitled Canada’s Bitumen Industry Under CO2 Constraints (found at http://globalchange.mit.edu). The report shows how and why the Canadian tarsands must contract as part of a global effort to prevent a 4 degree increase in temperatures and catastrophic climate change.
Why, then, would anyone argue for tarsands expansion and pipelines like Gateway? The reasons are obvious, as writers have known through the ages.
People who stand to get rich from tarsands development will delude themselves and try to delude others that the climate science is faulty or uncertain. As Upton Sinclair wrote, “it is hard to get a man to understand something when his income depends on his not understanding it.” And those who stand to gain from the tarsands indirectly (like politicians) will distract people from the obvious connection between tarsands expansion and climate catastrophe. “Tarsands are a small part of the problem.” “What about the Chinese?” “The tarsands will inevitably be developed.” “Low-emission vehicles and fuels are not ready yet.” And so on – all of it bogus. As H. L. Mencken wrote, “the truth that survives is simply the lie that is pleasantest to believe.”
The oft-heard argument that B.C. needs the jobs and tax revenue is particularly galling. This is like arguing we need jobs making a toxin or nuclear weapons. We are not helping ourselves and our children by creating jobs that spew CO2 into the atmosphere. We are already creating jobs that propel our vehicles without CO2 emissions, and we can do so much more.
And where is the logic in the almost-complete focus on pipeline or oil tanker spills by environmentalists and first nations? If Enbridge is able to convince the hearing panel that these local threats are acceptable, then the project goes ahead. But since climate change will devastate all of the ecosystems potentially affected by the project, efforts to prevent local damage from spills are fruitless if they are not part of a concerted effort to stop CO2 emissions. Otherwise, it’s like trying to prevent a fuel leak on the Titanic as it steams toward the iceberg. We need to turn the ship.
The facts are simple. Our political leaders are lying to us if they aid and abet the expansion of tarsands while promising to take action to prevent the imminent climate catastrophe. If you love this planet and your children, and are humble and objective in considering the findings of science, you have no choice but to battle hard to stop Gateway and other tarsands pipelines. It is time to face up to this challenge with honesty and courage.