Tar Sands

On November 9th, the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued its latest World Energy Outlook and announced that changes need to be made in the world’s energy infrastructure by 2017 if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Sounds pretty clear, we have to cut emissions from fossil fuels – Greenpeace has been saying this for years. Yet, the IEA report also promoted more development of coal, nuclear and the dirty oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. That’s the confusing part.

If world leaders have been woefully slow to tackle climate change, why would anyone in their right mind warn them to move faster to combat it, while also talking about expanding the use of the dirty fossil fuels causing the climate problem in the first place?

It gets worse. When a Greenpeace energy analyst from Canada pointed out that by promoting the tar sands, the IEA was being “intellectually and morally inconsistent” about tackling global warming, IEA senior executive Richard Jones went off the deep end and retorted: "We think the people who just say, 'you can wave a magic wand and replace all of these other technologies with renewables' are smoking dope."

First of all, of course we don’t think waving magic wands will fix the problem, but do think that by shifting investment from dirty fossil fuels to renewables will be a start. For example, if the annual, global US$400 billion subsidy for fossil fuels were switched to renewable energy, two billion people living in poverty would have access to energy this decade. Not a magic wand, just real action, like the IEA says leaders should take. Yet, the IEA doesn’t recommend this switch.

There’s more confusion at the IEA. It says the world should not pull back from nuclear energy (not even in the face of the Fukushima disaster) because it is needed to cope with rising demand and to fight global warming.

Right now, nuclear plants supply less than three per cent of final energy around the world. If there were a massive nuclear building boom, at a cost of billions and billions, global emissions of CO2 would only drop by three to four per cent by 2030. Such a frightening boom certainly wouldn’t make a dent in emissions by 2017. Some nuke companies can’t design a reactor in five years, let alone build one.

Why this confusion from the IEA? Two things could explain it.

Nobel Prize winning writer Paul Krugman, at the New York Times, wrote recently that the world may be on the verge of an energy transformation because the cost of solar power is falling rapidly. Krugman went on to say: “If that surprises you, if you still think of solar power as some kind of hippie fantasy, blame our fossilized political system, in which fossil fuel producers have both powerful political allies and a powerful propaganda machine that denigrates alternatives.”

The other could be bitumen, the nasty stuff in the tar sands that is turned into synthetic oil at a terrible environmental cost. Oil from bitumen is unconventional oil, the kind that’s developed to maintain our addiction to oil. Richard Jones (he of the dope-smoking comment) is from the US, where they know a thing or two about oil addiction. He sees squeezing more oil from the tar sands as good for U.S. energy security. We’ve long worried about the health impact of bitumen. If you’re near bitumen, the smell of gasoline is all around you. Maybe the fumes have gone to Mr. Jones’ head.

See also: The IEA says the world must act on climate change within five years: Greenpeace agrees

Brian Blomme is a Communications Manager at Greenpeace International