The claim that “There Is No Alternative” is a clever way to try to shut down debate when one is forced to defend an ethically-challenged position. So it’s no surprise to see it popping up so consistently in the talking points of tar sands proponents, who basically argue that since the International Energy Agency says we need the oil, let’s talk about how (not if) we expand production.

We’ve heard this from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (see page 13 of their latest report), BP (see page 12), Shell, and most recently in an opinion piece in yesterday’s Globe and Mail that claimed that “refusing to supply Canada’s oil to China will do nothing to improve the world’s environment.  According to the International Energy Agency, the world’s dependence on oil will inexorably rise for decades to come.”

This would be a compelling argument if it were true. But it’s not.

The IEA’s latest World Energy Outlook included three scenarios (possible futures) and assessed what they would mean in terms of global warming. In two of the scenarios (where nothing or very little is done to address climate change), demand for oil does grow and temperatures are expected to rise be 3.5 – 6 degrees Celsius. But the demand for oil drops in the third scenario, which the IEA believes would have a 50 per cent chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees (the internationally-agreed upon goal).

The IEA also helpfully notes that as the high-cost supplier (what they call the “marginal barrel”), demand for oil from the tar sands drops disproportionately in the event of lower global demand and “projects currently under construction or being planned [in the Canadian oil sands] would suffice to match supply to demand.”

In short, the IEA is actually saying that there is only a market for all the oil the companies want to take out of the tar sands if we are on the pathway to catastrophic levels of warming.

A similar warning (although on economic rather than ecological grounds) was made by a group of prominent business people and academics appointed hand-picked by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach to make recommendations on how to ensure the province’s long-term prosperity. The April 2011 report of the Premier’s Council on Economic Strategy warned that “we must plan for the eventuality that oil sands production will almost certainly be displaced at some point in the future by lower cost and/or lower-emission alternatives. We may have heavy oil to sell, but few or no profitable markets wishing to buy."

Greenpeace, not surprisingly, is not satisfied with a 50 per cent chance of keeping warming below two degrees, and have worked with the European Renewable Energy Council and the German Aerospace Agency to come up with our own scenario, the Energy [R]evolution, which was featured as one of the four lead scenarios in the latest report from the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In this possible future, demand for oil drops even further as we tap into the large potential for improving the efficiency of the transport sector by shifting freight from road to rail, expanding public transit, by using much lighter, smaller and more efficient passenger vehicles, and by accelerating the transition to electric vehicles powered by renewable energy.

This is the possible future – where we have avoided the worst impacts of climate change while meeting global energy needs – that Greenpeace is working to realize. It is also a future where there is no market for expanded production from the tar sands and existing projects would be in the process of being phased out.