Suncor tar sands facility in Fort McMurray
Suncor tar sands facility in Fort McMurray

Sadly, there is some truth in the claim by Canada’s new environment minister Jim Prentice that the climate change policies of Stephen Harper and Barack Obama are similar.



The environmental legacy of George W. Bush has been a 17 per cent increase in greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. since 1990. Canada has had a 22 per cent increase. Both Canada and the U.S. are guilty of climate crimes against the planet.

 Based on overwhelming scientific evidence, the international community has taken the position that in order to avoid disastrous global warming impacts, industrial countries such as Canada and the U.S. have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at least 25 to 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Greenpeace and other environmental groups have supported the position of the KYOTOplus campaign, calling on Canada to reduce emissions at least 25 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. Stephen Harper does not even come close to this minimum target. His 2020 target is less than three per cent below 1990 levels.

Prior to the election, Obama supported the Lieberman-Warner energy bill calling for 15 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 (i.e. roughly 1990 levels), but he has not actually set a 2020 target of his own.

However, in contrast to Stephen Harper, Barack Obama has policies that could dramatically improve the situation. For example, Obama has called for $150 billion in spending on renewable energy, which will create five million green jobs, and result in 10 per cent renewable energy by 2012, and 25 per cent by 2025.

Obama has also spoken out against the use of dirty oil from Canada’s tar sands. When Harper proposed a continental cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the US on November 5th, he called for the tar sands to be excluded. But any global warming program is meaningless unless Harper stops Alberta’s tar sands and shifts to a real green energy economy.

The problem is that production of oil from the tar sands takes three to five times more greenhouse gas than  conventional oil. The only possible way to justify proceeding with the tar sands is if the greenhouse gases are removed from the emissions (i.e. ‘captured’) and then stored underground, virtually forever. This process is known as “carbon capture and storage” (CCS).

There are a number of serious problems with CCS, which are why it has been labeled a “false hope” as a solution to global warming. CCS technology is still at an early demonstration phase, and it is not anticipated to be commercially viable until 2020-2030 period. We know that greenhouse gas emission must peak no later than 2015, and be dramatically reduced thereafter.

There is also no doubt that CCS will be very expensive ($75 to $140 per tonne of carbon captured), has a long lead time, and results in an overall loss of efficiency. Its high cost means that it may preclude investment in more cost effective green energy alternatives that might otherwise replace fossil fuel sources altogether. Despite multi-billion-dollar windfall profits, oil companies are lobbying for and receiving commitment from governments to provide massive subsidies two support CCS. In July 2008, the Alberta government committed to create a $2 billion fund to subsidize CCS for oil corporations.

There are also questions about whether storage of carbon dioxide can be guaranteed against leakage.

Carbon capture and storage is not a solution to global warming, it’s an excuse for inaction in the transition to a sustainable green economy. In the long run, efficiency and renewable energy strategies would be cheaper, cleaner, safer, and create more jobs than trying to prop up an economy based on dirty, expensive unconventional fossil fuels such as the tar sands.

Stephen Harper supports his political allies in Alberta, the big oil corporations, by promoting the tar sands -- the dirtiest oil in the world. The alleged future commitment to CCS provides the green-washing that justifies the tar sands expansion. But it’s jam tomorrow, and never jam today… the Alberta and Canadian governments are not nominally requiring carbon capture until 2018. Even then, the oil companies could avoid doing CCS by purchasing offsets (a form of emissions trading).

The tar sands have to be stopped if we are serious about fighting global warming.